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Labored Breathing in Cats & Dogs

Unlike panting after exercise, labored breathing in dogs and cats occurs when your pet is unable to breathe properly due to an underlying medical condition or illness. Here, our Los Angeles vets share the symptoms and potential causes of labored breathing in cats and dogs.

What is Labored Breathing in dogs and cats?

In order to be able to recognize when your dog or cat is having trouble breathing it's important to distinguish between breathing quickly (tachypnea) and actually struggling to breathe (dyspnea).


  • Tachypnea is the fast breathing we all experience when exercising. If you take your dog out for a run, they may pant and breathe quickly but this does not mean that your dog is having difficulties breathing.


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

If your dog or cat is experiencing labored breathing it is considered an emergency situation and you should bring your pet to the nearest emergency animal hospital immediately. Please see below for more information on the different symptoms dogs and cats will exhibit when they are struggling to breathe. 

What are the signs of labored breathing in dogs?

When a dog is having difficulty breathing you are likely to notice one or more of the following symptoms:

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

What does labored breathing in cats look like?

It's very common for cats to hide when they aren't feeling well which can make spotting the signs of labored breathing challenging for cat owners. When a cat is experiencing difficulties breathing they may show one or more of the following symptoms:

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

What causes labored breathing in dogs and cats?

Cats and dogs aren't always susceptible to the same medical conditions but below are some of the more common causes of labored breathing that can affect both dogs and cats: 

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

How is labored breathing in pets treated?

Treatment for labored breathing in your pet will depend on the underlying cause of the breathing difficulty. Your vet will give your cat or dog a thorough examination and recommend a course of treatment or symptom relief based on their findings. Some treatments for labored breathing include:

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

Your vet may recommend additional diagnostic tests in order to accurately diagnose the cause of your pet's breathing difficulties. Diagnostic testing could include chest or abdominal X-rays and electrocardiogram or echocardiogram to check 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.

At Ambassador Dog & Cat Hospital we see emergency cases during our regular clinic hours. If your pet is experiencing breathing difficulties please contact us or the nearest pet emergency hospital immediately.

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