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Breathing Problems in Dogs and Cats: Dyspnea

Posted January 15, 2014 in Dog Diseases & Conditions A-Z

After summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro earlier this year, I’m much more empathetic to patients that have breathing problems due to oxygen starvation. It’s a miserable – almost inhumane – the feeling of struggling to breathe.

Difficulty breathing is not the same as a shortness of breath
Dyspnea, which means difficulty breathing, occurs when a pet is having the feeling of shortness of breath. The true term dyspnea shouldn’t be confused with tachypnea which means an increased respiratory rate.

Semantically there’s a difference between these two words. When you go jogging with your dog, your dog is tachypneic after the run. In other words, he’s panting and has an increased respiratory rate; however, that doesn’t mean he’s having difficulty.

How do I know if my dog or cat is having difficulty breathing or shortness of breath?
As a pet guardian, you have to be able to observe the difference between dyspnea and tachypnea, because dyspnea is a life-threatening emergency. Most of the time pets are tachypneic first, which can serve as your first clue that dyspnea may be on the way.

What signs does a pet show when they are having difficulty breathing? Clinical signs differ slightly between dogs and cats:

Cat signs include the following:

  • An increased respiratory rate > 40 breaths per minute (bpm)
  • Hunched over in sternal
  • Hiding
  • Coughing (which sounds like “hacking” up a hairball)
  • Open mouth breathing (unless it’s a stressful event like a car ride, this is always abnormal as cats always prefer to breathe through their nostrils)
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Foam or froth coming out of the mouth

Dog signs include the following:

  • Constant coughing, especially at night
  • Exercise intolerance (for example, and most notably, when you take them for a walk)
  • An increased respiratory rate > 40 bpm
  • A change in bark, where it sounds more hoarse
  • Anxiety, restlessness, pacing
  • Constant panting
  • Stretching the neck out to breathe
  • Sitting up to breathe, with the front legs/elbows spread out (like a English bulldog stance) to breathe
  • Using the abdomen to breathe better (you’ll notice the sides of the belly heaving in and out more)
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Foam or froth coming out of the mouth

Note that this list of signs isn’t all-inclusive, but if you notice any of these signs, a visit to the veterinarian or emergency veterinarian is a must.

Why is my dog or cat having difficulty when breathing?

Difficulty breathing

Related symptoms: 

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Justine has more than 18 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a board-certified emergency critical care veterinary specialist and toxicologist as well as the CEO and founder of Vetgirl. She is also a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.