Breathing Defined


For convenience, in describing medical conditions the respiratory system is divided into upper and lower tracts. The upper respiratory tract (URT) consists of the nasal passages, throat (pharynx), voice pet (larynx) and windpipe (trachea). The lower respiratory tract contains the breathing tubes (bronchi) and lungs (smaller bronchi, called bronchioles, air sacs and blood vessels).

Problems may occur anywhere. Infections are often restricted to only one part of the system although URT infections may lead to secondary infection in the lower respiratory tract. URT conditions include foreign bodies in the nostrils and infections such as flu in cats and kennel cough in pets. Lower respiratory tract diseases include bronchitis, pneumonia and fluid in the chest cavity (pleural effusion). Virtually all conditions of the respiratory system cause changes in your pet's regular breathing pattern.

How Breathing Works

Breathing allows oxygen from the air to be absorbed into the bloodstream to provide fuel for your pet's body to function properly. Air is filtered and warmed in the nose, then passes through the windpipe and bronchial tubes to the lungs, and eventually into millions of thin-walled air sacs where it’s exchanged for waste carbon dioxide which is breathed out. Mucus or debris and associated inflammation may occur anywhere in the system. Because the respiratory tract has direct access to the outside world, defensive mechanisms have evolved to rid it of dangers. The respiratory tract is lined with microscopic finger-like "cilia" that sweep mucus and debris from the lungs. This "mucociliary escalator" is damaged by infection, irritants and inflammation. Coughing, gagging and sneezing are also used to expel unwanted material. These natural defences have, in turn, been hijacked by microorganisms, cat flu viruses for example, or kennel cough bacteria, as an ideal method for their own spread. Depending upon size, your pet breathes between 10 and 30 times a minute, slower in big dogs, faster in smaller ones and cats.

Types Of Breathing

Rapid Breathing

Pets breath fast after exercise but also because of dangerous conditions such as shock, poisoning or heat stroke. Contact us immediately if your pet's breathing rate has suddenly increased without exercise.

Laboured Breathing

Difficulty breathing is always a sign of concern and is usually accompanied by rapid breathing. Causes include heart failure, lung disease, a build-up of fluid in the chest (pleural effusion), trauma such as a torn diaphragm and tumours. Contact us immediately.

Shallow Breathing

Shallow breathing means something is interfering with expansion and contraction of the chest. It usually occurs together with rapid breathing. Pain, from bruising or rib damage causes shallow breathing. See us immediately.

Noisy Breathing

Any change in breathing sounds is significant. Causes include obstructions affecting the URT such as paralysis of the vocal chords. Telephone us and tell us what you hear.


Wheezing is common in cats, much less so in dogs. It usually indicates a lung problem, an inflammation to the bronchi (bronchitis) caused by allergy, irritation or infection. Contact us immediately.


Don’t mistake normal panting for laboured breathing. Panting, which is shallow, rapid, open-mouthed breathing is not a medical problem in dogs but it is more significant in cats. Pain will induce panting. So will nervousness. Contact us if there is any inexplicable panting.

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