My Cat is Wheezing When Breathing - Causes and Treatment

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. February 6, 2019
My Cat is Wheezing When Breathing - Causes and Treatment

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A cat may make wheezing noise when they breathe for various reasons. The noises can sound like choking, making us fear an emergency situation. If our cat's airway is blocked, we will need to find a way to make it clear and potentially save their life. However, sometimes cats can make wheezing noises for a prolonged time. They may even have fits, but then return to normal breathing after a few minutes.

If you are concerned about why your cat is wheezing when breathing, AnimalWised is here to show you some of the causes behind this worrisome behavior. It is important to distinguish the difference between wheezing and choking. If you think your cat is in immediate danger, you will need to take them to the veterinary clinic right away.

You may also be interested in: Bronchitis in cats - Symptoms and Treatment

Brachycephalic cats

Before we explain some of the causes of wheezing in cats, we should explain that wheezing might be more common for some cats than others. Brachycephalic cat breeds are those which have a skull affected by brachycephaly. This is a genetic condition which causes their skull to malform. Their snout is flattened and their soft palate is shortened. The result is difficulty in breathing, along with other related conditions such as lacrimation.

Brachycephalic cat breeds are a result of breeding, with many cat owners believing the flattened facial appearance to be a desirable trait, despite the negative health implications. They include Persian cats, Himalayan cats (a derivative of Persians) and the Exotic Shorthair. The Scottish Fold and British Shorthair are also known to have this condition, but usually to a lesser extent. Mixed breed cats may also have condition.

While brachycephaly is not necessary fatal in and of itself, it does make breathing more difficult which can complicate their medical picture. In particular, you may find a cat wheezing while sleeping more often if they are one of these breeds. When their body is constricted, they are also more prone to wheezing and coughing.

My Cat is Wheezing When Breathing - Causes and Treatment - Brachycephalic cats

Feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR)

This is a viral disease which can severely compromise the health of your cat. It is highly contagious and one of the most important diseases to consider when looking after a cat. It is a respiratory disease and presents the following symptoms:

The cat will often stop eating which runs the risk of malnutrition and dehydration. The ocular problems can lead to corneal ulcers and blindness. For this reason, it is imperative we take the cat to the veterinarian as soon as feline viral rhinotracheitis is suspected.

The disease is mainly caused by the feline herpesvirus, but can also stem from a calicivrus infection. Feline herpesvirus “can produce severe illness especially in young cats and presents a higher threat to younger cats and kittens”[1]. As it is so contagious, it is also very problematic in catteries and multi-cat households. While the initial causes may lead to FVR, the situation is usually complicated by accompanying bacterial infections and/or a weakened immunity.

To treat FVR, the vet will prescribe antibiotics and will usually provide supportive treatment such as fluid therapy and pain killers. As their weakened immune system can cause a loss of appetite, it is important we find ways to stimulate feeding. Lukewarm and more palatable food is recommended, but they may need to be hospitalized if they are unable to feed. Recovery is possible, but they will remain a carrier of the virus for the remainder of their lives and can pass it on to others. It also may reappear during periods of stress.

Feline asthma

With a greater incidence in breeds like the Siamese cat, feline asthma is another explanation for a cat wheezing sound. It is often triggered by irritants in the cat's environment as it is an allergic respiratory disease. The result is a chronic inflammation of the lower respiratory tract with signs such as bronchoconstriction, snoring or wheezing noises. It sometimes may seem like your cat keeps coughing but nothing comes up. This can cause us great anxiety, but usually the wheezing fit calms down after a short time.

Along with the wheezing, towards the end of an asthmatic fit, the cat may make a weird noise which sounds like gurgling. This will likely be accompanied by watery eyes. This noise is an attempt to swallow the excess mucus produced in the bronchi. Once the cat contracts feline asthma, it will be with them for life. It is also progressive which means we need to be very careful with older cats in particular.

Prevention of asthma in cats is better than cure, so we should do our best to remove any allergens in the home which may affect the cat's respiratory system. This will be good for any humans in the home as well as the cats. There is no cure, but treatment in the form of a feline inhaler might be used during wheezing attacks. The sound is not quite like a human asthma attack, but sounds a little like the cat is trying to pass a hairball.

You will need to take the cat to the veterinarian for assessment. This is so they can determine if the cause is asthma or something else resulting is respiratory problems and wheezing. The diagnostic test requires the cat to be anesthetized which carries its own complications, especially in older cats. However, a 2017 report from the University of Missouri shows there may be a possible way to diagnose without anaesthetic. It involves the cat breathing into a cooling device to catch breath droplets[2]. However, it is not yet widely used.

Pleural effusion

Pleural effusion is the medical term for the accumulation of fluid in the space between the cat's lungs and the walls of the chest. It occurs mainly due to heart failure, infectious peritonitis, neoplasia or pyothorax. The latter of these involves the accumulation of pus in the pleural cavity. In these cases, the cat has severe trouble breathing and makes a wheezing sound due to the lung's inability to expand properly.

In addition to the cat wheezing and coughing, symptoms include restlessness and cyanosis. This is when the skin and mucus membranes turn a bluish color due to particularly difficult breathing. This constitutes a veterinary emergency and the veterinarian will likely treat by removing the fluid or pus. This is done by inserting a needle into the pleural cavity and using a syringe to suck out the fluid. Affected animals “can be very fragile, so careful handling and confidence in the emergency management of such cases is vital”[3].

My Cat is Wheezing When Breathing - Causes and Treatment - Pleural effusion

Other causes of wheezing in cats

In addition to the aforementioned pathologies, there are some other reasons why your cat may be making wheezing noises. These include:

  • Polyps or tumors in the nasopharyngeal area
  • Obstructions in the larynx
  • Neoplasms (including cancer)
  • Foreign objects
  • Hairballs

The variety of causes and the serious threat posed by some fo them require an immediate consultation with the vet. They will perform an examination and carry out the pertinent tests. These may include ultrasounds, x-rays or biopsy and they are necessary to determine the right diagnosis and treatment.

While they sound similar, there are subtle differences between wheezing and choking. If you want to know more, you can read up here on why your cat is making choking noises.

My cat trembles when breathing

Finally we mention an emotional cause which may explain why a cat trembles as well as wheezing. Stress is a factor we may not initially consider. In these situations, the cat may breathe quickly, agitatedly and superficially with their mouth open. Their pupils will be dilated, they will pass their tongue over their lips and will repeatedly swallow saliva.

The first thing to do is to leave the cat calm and then look for the stress trigger to help avoid this happening again. A veterinarian or feline ethologist will be best suited to help us determine the cause of stress in cats.

My Cat is Wheezing When Breathing - Causes and Treatment - My cat trembles when breathing

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to My Cat is Wheezing When Breathing - Causes and Treatment, we recommend you visit our Breathing diseases category.


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1 comment
Doug Burns
My cat is 19 years old. Has soft wheezing sound. Eats and drinks well. Is brushed reasonably active. Does not seem to have the symptoms of worms. What can I do?
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Doug,

Old age can provide a litany of ailments which affect a cat. It's a normal process and wheezing might be a sign of their physiology deteriorating. It could also be an infection, something more dangerous since their immunity is lowered. We don't know and we won't try to tell you. You need to take them to a veterinarian to achieve an adequate diagnosis. Good luck!
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