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 over 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 over 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

Why is my dog or cat having difficulty when breathing?

  • Upper airway (i.e., the throat, larynx, or pharynx area)
  • Lower airway (i.e., the trachea and lungs)
  • Pleural space (i.e., the area surrounding the lungs)
  • Lung parenchyma (i.e., the lungs)
  • Chest wall (i.e., the ribs and associated muscles)
  • Diaphragm

Look-a-likes are problems that often make it look like your pet is having difficulty breathing and may include:

  • severe pain
  • abnormal oxygen levels in the red blood cells
  • stress
  • hyperthermia
  • metabolic abnormalities
  • drugs
  • neurologic problems
  • shock

Causes of difficulty breathing in dogs & cats include the following:

  • Asthma (in cats)
  • Infectious diseases (e.g., kennel cough pneumonia, canine influenza, upper respiratory infections, etc.)
  • A problem in the pharynx or upper airway (such as a polyp growing in the oropharynx in young cats, or a cancerous growth growing in the airway in dogs or cats)
  • Heart failure
  • Chronic bronchitis (in dogs)
  • Cancer
  • Metabolic problems (e.g., gastrointestinal problems resulting in a low protein in the body and fluid accumulation in the chest and abdomen, kidney failure, etc.)
  • Laryngeal paralysis, which is a narrowing of the airway (predominantly in dogs)
  • Pneumonia (which can be due to aspiration or inhalation of vomit into the lungs, or infectious causes like bacteria or fungal infections within the lung)
  • Bleeding into the lung (often seen in dogs secondary to getting into anticoagulant mouse and rat poison)
  • Trauma (e.g., lung bruises [pulmonary contusions], abnormal air leaking into the chest cavity [pneumothorax], rib fractures, a diaphragmatic hernia [tear in the diaphragm resulting in abdominal organs entering the chest cavity])
  • Pulmonary embolism (e.g., a blood clot to the pulmonary vessels that results in sudden death and difficulty breathing)

Unfortunately, the prognosis for survival from difficulty breathing varies with what the underling problem is, financial constraints (which may limit treatment options), and severity of the disease. With certain diseases like pneumonia, the prognosis is fair with treatment but with cancer, the prognosis is poor to grave.

When in doubt, seek veterinary attention and a full work up as soon as you notice any trouble breathing. Keep in mind that pets often don’t show clinical signs until those signs are very severe, and any signs listed above warrant a trip to the veterinarian. The sooner you notice a problem, the sooner we can treat it and potentially the better the outcome.