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If you’ve ever studied your cat breathing, you may have noticed how quiet and calm it is. Cats typically don’t make much sound at all and you can barely hear their breaths, with their chest and belly gently rising and falling. The majority of their breathing is also through their nose, and they’re rarely seen with an open mouth.
Therefore, if you’ve noticed your cat acting strangely and breathing with an open mouth, you may be a little concerned. But can cats breathe through their mouth? Or is this panting behavior actually them trying to say something else?
It turns out, cats can breathe through their mouths, but it is extremely uncommon for them to do so and is usually only caused by blocked nasal passages, extreme stress, or a severe medical condition.
In this article, we will run through how cats’ breathing works, what it means if your cat is breathing out their mouth, and what you should do about it.
How Do Cats Breathe?
A cat’s respiratory system is very similar to that of humans and is made up of three major parts: the mouth and nose, the lungs, and the trachea which is the windpipe that joins the two together. Together, the respiratory system of a cat is responsible for taking in oxygen from the air to be delivered around the body and eliminating waste gases such as carbon monoxide.
However, when we look closer, it is clear our respiratory systems work slightly differently from each others’. We as humans can choose to breathe through either our nose or our mouth, and healthy individuals should breathe through both depending on the situation and our conscious choices.
Unlike humans though, cats are obligate nasal breathers. This means that they will always automatically breathe through their nose, and the only time they ever breathe through their mouths is when there is an underlying issue or they cannot get the oxygen they need into their bodies through normal nasal breathing alone.
Therefore, cats can breathe through their mouth, but it is not a good sign and usually an indicator that something is very wrong and getting in the way of them breathing comfortably through their nose.
Why is My Cat Breathing Out Of Its Mouth?
There are several reasons a cat may breathe out of its mouth, but typically open mouth breathing isn’t a welcome sign. It usually indicates your cat is struggling to breathe or has blocked and congested nasal airways, which can limit their ability to respire properly and healthily, a function that is vital to their survival.
Here are all the reasons why your cat could be breathing out its mouth and what you can do to help.
1. Feline Asthma
Just as asthma is common in humans, cats can also suffer from this respiratory condition which makes it difficult for them to breathe. İn cats, this typically develops between the age of 2-7 years old, with female cats and specific breeds including Siamese and Himilayan cats being more at risk.
Alongside exhibiting open mouth breathing to get more air into their lungs, cats with asthma may also show other signs and symptoms, including:
- Chronic coughing or wheezing
- Rapid and noisy breathing
- Weakness and lethargy
Most veterinarians agree that feline asthma is caused by allergens in the air that trigger an inflammatory response. When exposed to the allergen, your cat’s immune system will start creating chemicals that cause inflammation in their airways, constricting their trachea and obstructing their airways and nasal passages.
Just as humans can be allergic to a range of different things, as can cats. That being said, common allergens include aerosol sprays, tobacco or candle smoke, cat litter dust, household cleaners, pollen, or dust mites. If you think your cat has asthma, try to limit exposure to any of these allergens, such as swapping to dust-free litter and not using aerosols around your feline.
You should also take your cat to the vet who will be able to prescribe medication to help dilate the airways and reduce the inflammatory response. Also, a humidifier can help to reduce the frequency of your cat’s asthma attacks.
2. Upper Respiratory Infections (URI)
Upper respiratory infections (URIs) can also cause open mouth breathing in cats. Rather than target the lungs, these infections cause problems in the upper airways – the nose, throat, and sinuses. Therefore, alongside open mouth breathing, symptoms of feline URI’s include other upper respiratory symptoms including:
- Nasal congestion or a runny nose
- Sneezing and coughing
- Oral or nasal ulcers
- Clear discharge from the eyes and nose
Most of these types of infection (80-90%) are caused by viruses and are comparable to a human cold or the flu. In cats, common viruses include feline herpesvirus which is related to the human virus that causes chickenpox, or the feline calicivirus which is a highly contagious infection that can cause severe respiratory symptoms.
The remaining URIs are caused by bacteria. Chlamydia is a common culprit and is often accompanied by runny eyes or discharge, along with bordetella which is linked with feline stress. The fungus from bird droppings or decaying plants can also cause URIs in cats.
If you suspect your cat has a URI, take them to the vet immediately. If left untreated, upper respiratory infections can lead to pneumonia or other serious complications that could otherwise be avoided.
Your vet will be able to run tests to determine which virus, bacteria, or fungus is causing the infection and provide medication to help combat it. They will also be able to advise you on whether you need to keep your infected cat isolated to lower the risk of them passing the infection on, as well as advice on helping them breathe and eat normally.
It is also possible that your cat is breathing with its mouth open because it is trying to cool down. If this is the case, you may notice your cat breathing through their mouth and drooling, similar to how dogs would pant and salivate on a hot summer’s day.
Cats do have some physiological mechanisms in place to help them cool down, such as sweating from their paw pads and noses, but their ability to cope with high external temperatures is mainly due to behavioral adaptations. For example, you may notice your cat not moving as much in summer and lying spread out on the floor. They will also groom excessively to cool themselves down.
However, despite these behaviors, cats can overheat in extreme situations which will turn to heatstroke, a type of hyperthermia, if they don’t manage to cool themselves back down. Alongside panting, symptoms of heatstroke include:
- Red and swollen gums
- Increased sleeping and lethargy
- Vomiting and diarrhea
If heatstroke is left untreated, your cat’s body temperature can continue to rise. Their heart rate will then quicken and they could experience seizures, coma, and potentially even death. If you live in a hot area, try to help your cat to cool down on hot days to prevent heatstroke from developing, and if it’s too late and the onset of heatstroke has already started, it’s time to go to the vet.
4. Pleural Effusion
Each of a cat’s lungs is surrounded by a double-layered membrane called the pleural sac. When an abnormal amount of fluid accumulates around the lungs in the pleural space between the two membranes, this is known as a pleural effusion.
This fluid accumulation prevents the lungs from expanding as much as they would do normally, making it difficult for your feline to breathe. Therefore, cats may breathe through their mouth in an attempt to increase airflow if they have a pleural effusion. You may also notice shallow and rapid breathing and, in some instances, a cough, lethargy, and loss of appetite.
Pleural effusion can either be due to excessive production of fluid or inadequate drainage of fluid. In cats, some common causes of these scenarios are:
- Bacterial infection
- High blood pressure
- Heart Failure
- Tumors in the chest and lungs
- Hernias on the diaphragm
- Feline infectious peritonitis
If your cat is suffering from pleural effusion, they need urgent medical attention from a veterinarian. Cats severely struggle with breathing difficulties and they will need to have the excess fluid drained from around the lungs. Often, oxygen therapy is needed and potential long-term treatment if the cause could trigger another pleural effusion in the future.
5. Strenuous Exercise
In some cases, it is also possible that your cat panting or breathing through their mouth is not a sign of a serious condition or medical emergency. It could simply be that they have overexerted themselves through exercise and that their unusual breathing behavior is nothing to worry about.
If this is the case, you will likely be able to tell as the onset of the open mouth breathing will occur after a large bout of exercise, such as a long play session with your kitty. Additionally, there will be no other symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, or vomiting.
You may, however, notice your cat is a little lethargic. This is simply the process of them recovering from strenuous physical exercise. Once they have had time to rest and cool down, they should start breathing through their nose again normally. If not, bring the abnormal breathing to the attention of your vet.
Also, bear in mind that although cat panting is possible following exercise, it is much less common than in dogs. Therefore, it would be wise to mention it to your vet even if the open mouth breathing was short-lived. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
6. Shock & Stress
Your cat could also be breathing through their mouth if they are stressed or shocked, similar to how some people with anxiety can suffer from panic attacks that are characterized by uncontrollable heavy breathing.
Aside from panting, stressed cats will also usually show other signs, which include:
- Refusing to use their litter tray
- Reduction in appetite
- Increased vocalization
- Excessive grooming or lack of grooming
- Acting aggressively towards you or family members
- Increased solidarity
If stress is the cause of your cat breathing through its mouth, it is important to try to make them feel at ease again. Cats thrive off of routine, and even minor changes to their schedule can cause them to suffer from huge bouts of stress. Examples could include sudden changes in the weather, having other animals or strangers around your home, or traveling.
Some changes cannot be helped and you will have to help your cat become accustomed to the new normal. One way to do this is to ensure everything else about their life and routine is kept the same. Also, providing plenty of places for them to hide when they need to can really help.
If you think your cat is suffering from stress, you should take them to visit your veterinarian too. There could be underlying medical conditions that are causing your cat to suffer mentally. They can also check that your cat isn’t breathing through their mouth for any other reason, which is essential to rule out early on because of the complications and dangers of many of the causes.
Is My Cat Breathing Out Of Its Mouth?
Just because your cat has its mouth wide open, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is breathing through it. This can confuse some owners, but it should be quite easy to determine.
An easy way to tell is to watch their stomach. Is it heaving up and down while their mouth is open? Also, can you hear their breath? If so, they’re likely breathing using their mouth. However, if not, it could be that your cat is making weird mouth movements for another reason.
One possible explanation is that they are trying to smell something. Cats have a special organ on the rooves of their mouths which is connected to their nasal cavity. Holding their mouth open a little longer than normal could just be them trying to better sense the smells around them.
Alternatively, there may be another condition not related directly to their lungs or their breathing which is causing them to hold their mouth open.
What Should I Do If My Cat Is Open Mouth Breathing?
Once you’ve determined that your cat is breathing through its mouth, you need to figure out why. This will enable you to work out if they are struggling to breathe and need urgent medical attention, or if this is normal behavior that you don’t need to worry about.
The best way to tell if your cat is struggling to breathe is to look at other symptoms they’re exhibiting, such as sneezing, coughing, excessive sleeping, drooling. Which symptoms they show will depend on the underlying reason as to why they’re open mouth breathing in the first place, but any combination of symptoms should be a cause for concern and requires medical attention.
Book your cat an emergency medical appointment with your veterinarian. It is so important that your cat can breathe properly as respiration is vital for cats’ survival so that their muscles and organs have the oxygen they need to function, and so waste gases can be removed from their body. Whereas something like asthma is less serious, pleural effusions or URI left unchecked are life-threatening.
Conversely, open mouth breathing after exercise or during a stressful situation is not anything to worry about. Instead, help your cat to try to relax and feel calm again. However, you should watch your cat closely to ensure their breathing returns to normal over time, and if not go to see a professional.
You may also notice your cat is sleeping with its mouth open, not dissimilar to how humans can be when sound asleep. Often, this is simply because they are in a deep and peaceful slumber. However, again it is vital to check for other symptoms and visit the vet to rule out the possibility of asthma or another medical condition.
In any case, if you do notice strange behavior in your feline that you’re worried about, it is always better to be safe than sorry and book a medical appointment. This will give your peace of mind but also ensures your cat stays happy and healthy.
So, can cats breathe through their mouth? Yes, but as obligate nasal breathers, this isn’t something they do naturally. Instead, they breathe through their mouths when nasal breathing is too much hard work or they aren’t receiving as much oxygen or expelling as much waste gases as they need to be.
Some examples of medical conditions that can trigger open mouth breathing are feline asthma, upper respiratory infections, or pleural effusion. Heatstroke can also lead to open mouth breathing as a means of cooling down. However, cats can breathe through their mouths following strenuous exercise or during highly stressful situations.
If you think it could be down to exercise or stress, you may not need to be too concerned. However, I recommend you take your cat to the vet either way. Any major condition left unchecked can have serious consequences and should be ruled out as soon as possible.