According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, the normal respiratory rate for a cat ranges between 16 and 40 breaths per minute. Though you may not give much thought to how your cat breathes, her breathing pattern and respiration rate provide helpful information about her health. If you notice any change in your cat's normal breathing, consult a veterinarian.
There's no special equipment necessary to figure out your cat's respiration rate, nor do you have to hunt down a special spot on her body as you do to count her pulse. Determining your cat's respiratory rate is a simple matter of watching and counting. Watch your cat breathe and count the breaths she takes in one minute; a 15-second interval is too short to get an accurate gauge of her breathing rate because her breaths per minute is fairly low. If you can catch your cat while she's sleeping, you'll get a good gauge of her normal respiratory rate while she's at rest when nothing to stress or excite her is happening to affect her breathing pattern.
How your cat breathes is important. The only effort required in normal breathing happens when the cat inhales to take air into the chest; exhalation takes no effort. When you check your cat's respiratory rate, you should see smooth, even breathing. You shouldn't detect any rasping, wheezing, bubbling in her chest or coughing. Occasionally, a cat will have a different breathing pattern, such as if she's been busy frisking about the house or has spotted something, such as a squirrel, that excites her. If you can't spot any movement, put a mirror in front of your cat's mouth and nose to look for condensation as she exhales. A bit of tissue in front of her nose also will move slightly as she exhales.
Fast or Slow Respiratory Rates
If a cat's respiratory rate is high, she may be in pain, excited or in shock. Other causes of rapid breathing include fever, stress and overheating. Medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, anemia, dehydration, heart disease, lung disease and accumulation of acid or toxic substances can result in a faster breathing rate. A slower than normal rate of breathing -- fewer than 16 breaths per minute -- can indicate hypothermia, encephalitis, narcotic poisoning or the presence of a blood clot on the brain.
Panting is normal in some situations, such as after exercise and to help a cat cool off or if the cat is afraid. If your cat is rapidly panting and appears anxious, she may be in heat stroke.
Shallow breathing is often caused by pain as the cat tries to limit the rib cage's motion. Rib fractures or pleurisy pain can cause shallow breathing, while blood or pus in the chest restrict breathing without pain. Known as pleural effusion, the condition is the most common reason for respiratory distress in cats.
Noisy breathing is normal for cats with shortened muzzles, such as Persians, but in others can point to an obstructed airway.
- Wheezing, or whistling noises, happens when a cat breathes in and out and is symptomatic of a spasm or narrowing of the bronchial tubes. Lungworms, heartworms and growths in the bronchial tubes are common causes of wheezing.
If your cat begins breathing abnormally and hasn't been exercising or isn't experiencing a stressful situation -- such as hearing a sudden loud noise -- she should see a vet.
Understanding what is normal for your cat will help you determine if there's something amiss requiring veterinary treatment. She may start breathing with an open mouth, hold her head low, flare her nostrils or show increased difficulty taking in air. You may notice a change in her appetite and mood. If you have any indication that your cat's having a difficult time breathing, she should see a vet immediately.