Panting cat may be in serious trouble

From Dr. Tracy Dewhirst

Dr. Dewhirst,

For the past few months I’ve seen my 6 year old cat gasp. She lies down and opens her mouth with her tongue curled up and protruding. The gasp takes about five minutes. I’ve never seen cat pants before. Should I be concerned or is this normal?

Kathy P.

Kathy,

A panting cat looks like the picture you described and always makes veterinarians suspicious of cardiovascular disease or other metabolic problems. Wheezing is often a warning sign that the cat is under cardiopulmonary stress and may have arrhythmias, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or heart failure. Wheezing can also occur in cats with lung disease and hyperthyroidism, an increase in thyroid hormone production.

There are many stories of cat owners who notice their cat is panting and a week later the cat dies from heart complications or a thrombus (blood clot) caused by heart disease. These are terrifying stories that will remind us not to ignore a panting cat. I will also tell you that wheezing can be normal behavior when it occurs in a young cat after a period of rough play, or in a cat in a stressful situation, or in a healthy cat that has been exposed to extreme heat and humidity.

Cats are like dogs in that they cannot sweat freely to dissipate heat. They rely on the small surfaces of the foot pads and the skin of their ears to evaporate. Wheezing helps lower body heat in overheated cats. The difference between cats and dogs is that cats look for cool spots on hot days and don’t exert themselves naturally when the outside temperatures start to rise. Hence, we usually don’t see cats panting. Overheating in cats is usually a man-made situation caused by poorly ventilated homes, traveling in a hot car, or the lack of a shady place to rest.

If your cat is on a hot day or if he’s stressed, the color of the cat’s tongue can tell if he’s in trouble. If the tongue is light pink there is less to worry, but if the tongue is bluish or dark there is definitely a problem and you should take care of your pet right away.

However, if your cat is panting during normal, day-to-day activities, it should be checked out immediately. Let your vet know about the circumstances surrounding wheezing, including information about general attitude, appetite, and stress levels. I always recommend a minimal blood chemistry workup, chest x-ray, and electrocardiogram for a cat with wheezing episodes. And since some cardiovascular diseases like HCM may not be audible during auscultation with a stethoscope, I recommend an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) which is the gold standard in diagnosing cardiovascular disease. An “echo” enables the cardiologist or radiologist to directly visualize the heart, the wall thickness, the valve function and the possibility of a clot forming.

Tracy Dewhirst is a veterinary surgeon. Send your questions to www.askthevetradio.com.

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