Why do cats pant?

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By Emily Bruer

If you have an active cat, chances are you have seen her pant a time or two. But cats don’t pant the way that dogs do, and so you might be wondering “is panting natural?” or “should I be worried about this?”

For the average cat, the most common time for panting to occur is after strenuous activity. If you have ever seen the TV show “My Cat From Hell” you have likely seen Jackson Galaxy exercising cats until they begin panting. (To be honest, most of our couch-potato cats could benefit from a little more exercise and panting.)

Cats can also pant when experiencing severe anxiety or stress. You may notice it on the car ride to the vet, after a loud party at your house, or a night of fireworks. Depending on the sensitivity of your cat, you may see this behavior a little more or a little less.

When you notice your cat panting in fear or distress it’s best to remove them from the situation and get them somewhere they feel safe. (Vet visits are important trips, so you may not always be able to get your cat somewhere calm, but do your best. One of the easiest ways to reduce stress is to make sure your cat is habituated to the carrier well before that first vet visit.)

If your cat isn’t stressed or tired from exercise, and is just sprawled out on the sofa panting for no reason, that’s a serious matter that could indicate an underlying medical condition.

Get to the vet as soon as you can so that you can get kitty a wellness exam. It’s likely that when you get there they will want to do some diagnostics, such as a full blood work panel that checks organ functions and thyroid levels. (If your cat’s blood work comes back perfect, you will still benefit from knowing what her normal values are so that when she gets sick in the future you will have a good baseline.)

Your vet will likely also want to test your kitty for diseases like FIV, feline leukemia, and heartworms. While heartworms are rare in cats, they can get them, and a large infestation could lead to pulmonary distress and panting.

Radiographs are another diagnostic test your vet may want to perform. Growths in the nasal cavities and lungs can cause panting and should be visible in radiographs. A radiograph of the stomach may also be helpful as well, as severe stomach pain could cause panting.

If none of these tests reveal the cause of your cat’s panting, your vet may recommend you visit a specialist to have an ultrasound done of the heart and the abdomen. Though radiographs can usually pick up tumors, they can’t always detect fluids in the lungs or surrounding areas.

While your vet is working to determine the cause of the panting, he may want to begin treatment for the other symptoms. If your cat has been panting for a very long time, it’s likely she also hasn’t be drinking or eating much. Your vet may want to start your cat on fluids, antibiotics, or even give her a blood transfusion, depending on what the results of the diagnostic tests have been and what he feels might be wrong with her.

Don’t worry if you aren’t able to get an immediate diagnosis; your vet will work with you to figure out exactly what is ailing your feline friend. And in the meantime, make sure that Kitty is getting the appropriate nutrition and medication and has a suitable environment and enrichment for her age and health. 

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emily-bruer-pawedinEmily Bruer has been penning the adventures of her imagination since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Working at animal shelters for the last five years she learned an incredible amount about animal care and behavior. She is currently employed at a vet clinic where she continues her animal education. Emily’s love of animals is evident when you step into her home, which she shares with six dogs and six cats, all of whom were rescues.