The Only Locally-Owned Emergency and Specialty Hospital in Minnesota

How to Know if Your Pet is Experiencing Respiratory Distress

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If your pet is having difficulty breathing, this is considered a “RED” – or true emergency – on our Fast Track Triage system. We advise you to seek immediate veterinary care. Please call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you!

  • Remove any neck collars or facial restrictions such as muzzles.  
  • If your pet is having difficulty breathing caused by heat, learn more here. 
  • Seek immediate veterinary care rather than attempting chest compressions or CPR at home. Have a veterinary professional guide you over the phone on how to help your pet during transportation. 

Respiratory distress, or “difficulty breathing,” in pets can be due to many reasons, but it’s often related to diseases of the nasal cavity, trachea, lungs, and/or heart. No matter the cause, know that if your pet can’t breathe, he or she is in a life-threatening situation and should be brought to the veterinarian right away.  

In this scary situation, we understand it can be difficult for some pet parents to process what is happening or know what to do. Here’s a quick guide to recognizing respiratory distress in a cat or dog so you can feel better prepared to take prompt action if your pet is ever experiencing this emergency. 

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First off, a pet is experiencing respiratory distress if it: 

  • Cannot catch its breath 
  • Is heaving or wheezing 
  • Is sitting upright with head and neck extended – called orthopneic breathing and is meant to enhance airflow 
  • Is a cat and is breathing with an open mouth 

Unsure if your pet’s breathing is off? Count respirations! 

  • Dogs
    • When sitting calmly or resting, dogs should take 12-40 breaths per minute. If your dog’s respiratory rate exceeds 60 breaths per minute, seek immediate veterinary care. 
    • Gasping, excessive coughing, panting (despite being in a cool area and resting), or abnormal sounds indicate that your dog should be seen immediately. 
  • Cats
    • Count your cat’s respirations for 15 seconds while he or she is resting. Multiply the result by four. If the final number is greater than 40, seek immediate veterinary care. 
    • Shallow, rapid breathing or very deep, slow breathing are both abnormal and indicate that your cat should be seen immediately. 

Learn more about measuring your pet’s resting respiratory rate at-home here. 

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Is it safe to perform CPR on my pet if needed? 

The time you might spend doing CPR or chest compressions on a pet at home would be better spent traveling to a veterinarian. Veterinary teams go through extensive training to learn how to properly perform CPR on pets, and even within an animal ER, success rates for CPR are typically 5% or less. Contact a veterinary professional for guidance on how you can help your pet during transportation to the animal ER.  

While we hope no pet owner finds themselves in this frightening situation, we do hope that this information serves as helpful while assessing your pet’s breathing. If you are ever concerned about your pet’s breathing, it’s always best to have your pet examined by a veterinarian.  

Content provided by Beth Bruns, DVM; Sarah Foote, DVM.; and Nikki Scherrer, DVM.   

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