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Difficulty Breathing in Dogs & Cats

Your dog or cat may be panting, but that isn't the same thing as labored breathing. Labored breathing actually means that your pet is struggling to breathe properly. Here, our Jackson vets explain what shallow breathing and difficulty swallowing in cats and dogs (difficulty swallowing sometimes accompanies labored breathing) and what to do if your pet is showing signs of labored breathing.

What is labored breathing in dogs and cats?

To identify signs of respiratory distress in your cat or dog, it's crucial to distinguish between rapid breathing (known as tachypnea) and genuine difficulty in breathing (known as dyspnea).


  • During exercise, it is common to experience fast breathing. When your dog goes for a run, they may start panting and breathing quickly. However, your furry friend doesn't seem to have any breathing problems.


  • Dyspnea is the term for labored breathing in cats and dogs. This term means that your animal is actually having difficulties taking breaths, or is short of breath.

Labored breathing is a serious veterinary emergency that demands immediate medical attention. How can you determine if your pet is experiencing difficulty breathing? Dogs and cats show distinct symptoms when they have breathing problems.

What are the signs of labored breathing in dogs?

When dogs are having difficulty breathing, you are more likely to notice one of more of the following symptoms:

  • Constant panting
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Foaming or frothing at the mouth
  • Stretching the neck out to breathe
  • Belly heaving in and out more as they breathe
  • Persistent cough, especially at night
  • An increased respiratory rate > 40 bpm
  • An unusually hoarse sounding bark
  • Sighs of anxiety such as restlessness or pacing
  • Exercise intolerance (most notably, when you take them for a walk)
  • Sitting up with a wide stance to breathe (front legs/elbows spread out)

What does labored breathing in cats look like?

Our feline friends often hide when they're not feeling well. Spotting signs of breathing difficulties can be challenging, even for the most attentive cat owners. If a cat is experiencing difficulty breathing, it may show one or more of these symptoms:

  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Hiding in a quiet place
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Foaming or frothing from the mouth
  • Hacking or persistent coughing
  • Body hunched close to the ground with neck extended forward

What should I do if my pet is having difficulties breathing?

If your cat or dog is experiencing breathing issues, it's important to take them to the vet. Labored breathing in your pet should always be treated as a veterinary emergency. To ensure your pet can breathe comfortably, diagnosing the root cause of their breathing issues is necessary.

What causes difficulty breathing in dogs and cats?

Cats and dogs aren't always susceptible to the same conditions but some of the most common health issues that can lead to breathing difficulties in either type of animal include:

  • Trauma
  • Cancer
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Infectious diseases 
  • Growths in the upper airway
  • Heart failure
  • Metabolic issues
  • Exposure to toxins

How is labored breathing in pets treated?

After going through the examination process, your vet will prescribe a treatment plan based on the underlying cause of your pet's labored breathing. Some treatments for labored breathing in dogs and cats can include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • IV fluids
  • Steroids to reduce airway inflammation
  • Bronchodilators to expand airway and increase airflow
  • Diuretics to treat fluid in lungs

Additional diagnostic testing may be necessary to determine the exact cause of your pet's breathing difficulties. Diagnostic testing includes x-rays of the chest or abdomen, along with an electrocardiogram or echocardiogram to evaluate heart function.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your dog or cat is struggling to breathe normally, urgent veterinary care is required. Contact Northside Animal Clinic or visit a close-by emergency hospital as soon as possible.

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