The respiratory rate is an important vital to keep an eye on when it comes to cats and other species, for that matter. Significant changes in the respiratory rate can sometimes suggest pain, inflammation, or other, more complicated health conditions.
In today’s article, we’re looking at what the normal respiratory rate for cats should be and what situations can lead to cats experiencing tachypnea (rapid breathing) or bradypnea (slow breathing).
How fast should cats breathe?
Cats should normally take anything between 10-15 and 30 breaths per minute. The respiratory rate should always be measured when the cat is at rest, so either sleeping or just relaxing.
Depending on whether the cat played or engaged in some strenuous activity or not, the respiratory rate can sometimes reach the limit of 50-60 breaths per minute. Anything beyond that can be viewed as pathological, though, especially in animals that have other health issues that might not have been diagnosed and that are also engaging in physical effort.
A respiratory rate higher than 50 when the cat is resting means you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.
While the breathing rate can differ largely from one animal to the next depending on their age (kittens tend to breathe faster than their adult counterparts, for example), health status, and other factors, in this case, the breed makes no difference.
Rapid breathing in cats
Also known as tachypnea, rapid breathing might not be the symptom of a disease if it happens for physiological reasons. It is perfectly normal and to be expected that a cat breathes faster when she runs or hunts than she does when she sleeps.
However, if it is associated with other signs or if it shows up in animals that are known to have chronic conditions, especially heart disease, rapid breathing should always be a sign that should convince pet owners to get to the emergency veterinary clinic.
If the cat takes more than 30 breaths when completely at rest, this can be considered tachypnea. Besides the increased frequency itself, the pet might show additional clinical signs, such as the following:
- Open mouth breathing
- Lack of appetite/interest in food or water
- Gagging or coughing
- Longer or more frequent sleep sessions
Tachypnea in cats can be caused by several different factors, and they range from allergies and asthma to stress, heat, pain, pulmonary edema, and respiratory infections. One of the most worrying causes is heart disease, which can often go undiagnosed (especially since cats are very good at showing symptoms of illness in general).
Rapid breathing can also be caused by intoxication, in which case it is accompanied by symptoms such as blue gums (a sign that there’s not enough oxygen in the animal’s blood), a condition called cyanosis and that can appear in other complications, too, such as pneumothorax, severe pneumonia, carbon monoxide poisoning, respiratory paralysis, or shock.
The treatment for tachypnea in cats varies a lot depending on what it was caused by. In some cases, it could be an infection that responds well to antibiotics, while in other cases, it could be an inflammatory condition or an allergy that can be treated with the appropriate medications.
Slow breathing in cats
A lower respiratory rate isn’t supposed to be a major cause of concern if the cat is completely healthy and is resting. However, no cat should take fewer than 15-20 breaths per minute – when the rate is lower than that, it’s time to feel just a little worried, especially if there are other noticeable signs, such as labored breathing, wheezing, gagging, and more.
Bradypnea can appear in medication overdoses, carbon monoxide poisoning, or sleep apnea, a condition that can affect cats that are overweight or obese.
If your cat is known to have any type of heart condition, you should keep an eye on how they are resting and how well they are breathing. Both bradypnea and dyspnea can sometimes be a sign that their heart is not functioning normally and that it might be time for you to take them to the clinic to have their medications changed or dosage adjusted.
How to check your cat’s respiratory rate at home
The simplest way to check your cat’s breathing rate at home would be to measure the number of times their chest rises and falls when they are sleeping.
Of course, some cats can be in a deep sleep, so they might take just 10-20 breaths per minute, but if they are exhibiting no other symptoms whatsoever and they have behaved completely normally for the whole day, that’s probably nothing to worry about.
To make your life just a little easier, you can count the breaths for just 15 seconds and then multiply that number by two. If your pet has changed positions, sniffed, moved, or anything else has happened, you have to start over since the result might be inaccurate. When purring, cats always have a higher breathing rate than normal.
Impact of Obesity on Lung Function in Cats with Bronchoconstriction, Alicia Caro-Vadillo et al, 2022, Vet. Sci. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9230905/