Cat Illness & Open-Mouth Breathing

Updated November 21, 2016

Open-mouth breathing in cats is a form of laboured breathing and may indicate a number of lung conditions such as asthma, pleural effusion, upper respiratory infections and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). In order to understand a cat's symptoms, it is important to understand how a cat's lungs function. Understanding of the anatomy and basic function may help cat owners provide veterinary professionals with more accurate information. A detailed description of symptoms, including open-mouth breathing, is essential for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Anatomy of Feline Lungs

According to the experts at the Cornell Feline Health Center, a cat's lungs are similar in structure and function to a human's lungs. The lungs are two bag-like organs located next to each other on either side of the heart, and are primarily responsible for ventilation and perfusion. The Cornell Feline Health Center defines ventilation as the act of breathing, and perfusion as the act of removing oxygen from the air and exchanging it for carbon dioxide.


Open-mouth breathing is a common symptom of feline asthma. The Cornell Feline Health Center claims that asthma is one of the most common lung ailments among domesticated cats. Asthma is most commonly triggered by an allergic reaction, which causes an overproduction of mucus and hindering breathing, according to the Pet Well-being website. Airway constriction and mucus production associated with asthma is a chronic condition that may get worse over time. Though asthma is chronic with no complete cure, proper diagnosis and treatment may extend a cat's lifespan. An acute asthma attack may be fatal if left untreated.

Pleural Effusion

Open-mouth breathing and otherwise laboured breathing also is a symptom of pleural effusion. Pleural effusion involves the outer lining of the lung and heart cavity, known as the pleura. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, a number of underlying health conditions can cause the pleura to become inflamed and the area to fill up with fluid. This causes a cat's open-mouth, laboured breathing. Some possible causes of pleural effusion include heart failure, kidney disease, infection, cancer and injury to the cat's airways.

Upper Respiratory Infections

Upper respiratory infections are another condition that may result in a cat displaying open-mouth breathing symptoms. Upper respiratory infections in cats are similar to the common cold in people, according to the Pet Place website. Infections of the nose, throat and sinuses are common and contagious among domesticated cats. These types of infections cause eye and nose discharge, fevers, sneezing and open-mouth breathing. The Manhattan Cats website warns that open-mouth breathing symptoms accompanied with other cold-like signs should be treated as an emergency because it could be indicative of a more serious condition.

FIV and Other Concerns

Open-mouth breathing also may be a sign of the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or evidence of a parasitic infection, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center. Some common parasites that may cause a cat to experience respiratory distress include heartworms and lungworms.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Due to the wide variety of conditions that may cause a cat's open-mouth breathing, it is important for owners to pay close attention to their cat and its symptoms. Call the veterinarian at the first sign of respiratory distress and be sure to relay any accompanying symptoms or conditions. In emergency situations, veterinarians will probably conduct a brief exam and try to calm a cat's breathing with oxygen, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center. After the crisis has calmed, the doctor will diagnose the cat's condition and prescribe treatments. Treatments may include antibiotics, oral asthma medications or inhalers, and steroid medications.

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