Why Do Cats Pant?

Whether they have just been playing hard or the cause is something more serious, we explain five common reasons your feline friend might be panting.

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Live with a dog and you are intimately familiar with the sound, and smell, of your dog's heavy breathing. They seem to love to do it right next to your face just as you are about to binge watch another season of your favorite series. Cats on the other hand are a little more … considerate … when they decide to share with you the smell of their breath. You are more likely to experience their unique stench as they lick your hair right before you drift off to sleep rather than with heavy breathing in your face after a hefty play session.

Cats don't pant (we're talking about breathing not cat pants and definitely not cats in pants!) constantly to regulate their body temperatures as much as dogs do, but there are times when you are more likely to see your cat panting. It's perfectly normal to notice your cat taking in some deeper breaths after enjoying their new cat tower or during a game of pounce and chase. But when your cat's heavy panting occurs without exercise or comes on suddenly, it can be a cause for concern and mean a trip to the vet is needed.

Grey maine coon cat lays in grass panting with What the Fluff logo
Nils Jacobi / Shutterstock

What Does It Mean When My Cat Is Panting?

Panting, or heavy breathing with the mouth open, in cats can be a normal behavior if it occurs immediately after a big play session or right after kitty zoomies. But when it occurs at random times or even during resting periods, it can be a sign something is wrong.

A cat's normal breathing rate should appear steady, with a normal respiratory rate in cats being 15–30 breaths per minute depending on the cat's activity level. A sleeping cat will have a lower respiratory rate compared to a cat that is having a lot of fun destroying your newly potted plants (Bergeland cats raise your paws!).

5 Reasons a Cat Will Pant

"Panting means the cat is working very hard to get back to normal. Assessment of the immediate circumstances is needed to determine what course of action should be taken," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, author and owner of Cat Behavior Associates.

Whether your cat just played hide and seek with that amazing Amazon box you forgot to throw away or your cat may have injured a paw after pushing your laptop off your desk, we examine five common reasons your cat may pant.

1. Play and Exercise

When your feisty feline is excited and full of beans, they might start to pant. "They may pant briefly if they're revved up with excitement and playing hard and running and jumping about," says Theresa Entriken, DVM, a veterinary consultant located in Leawood, Kan.

Ensure your cat buddy has lots of opportunities for play and enrichment every day so they have a healthy body and are mentally content. Offer up toys and games that enable them to scratch, kick, and chase, but be sure the activities are well-suited to your individual feline. "Cats may pant when exhausted from strenuous activity. This may occur after a cat parent has played too energetically with the cat," says Johnson-Bennett.

Be sure to let your cat rest and recoup after lots of exercise, and monitor them to make sure they have not become overheated.

2. Overheating

All the pouncing, chasing, scratching, and jumping a cat does makes them hot. And when they have been active for a long period of time, they can get overheated (their body temperature becomes elevated). If that's the case, your cat may need to find a cool spot on the kitchen floor and might even do a kitty sploot (adorable!).

"To cool off, cats sweat a bit through their foot pads, lick their fur, drink water, hang out in shady spots, or stretch out on a cool surface to expose more of their body surface to release heat to cool down," Entriken says.

Our feline buddies can be susceptible to overheating, heatstroke, dehydration, or heat exhaustion just like us—particularly when it's hot, humid, or especially warm outside. In situations like those, pay close attention to symptoms such as:

Entriken says that if your cat is showing any of these concerning signs they need to be seen by a veterinarian right away.

3. Stress

Cats, even with all their silly antics, are not free from stress. Like their canine counterparts, cats experience fear, stress, and anxiety and express those uncomfortable emotions through body language.

A cat that may be under a lot of stress may take in fast and shallow open-mouth breaths (panting). If you see your cat doing this it may be an indicator that there are significant stressors in the home environment or their current situation makes them feel uncomfortable. For instance, cats may pant while at the vet office, when strangers come to your home, or when you introduce a new furry family member.

Consider the cause for your cat's concern and take immediate action to make sure your cat is feline fine and comfortable. Try to give them space and freedom from unwanted interactions, offer up toys and opportunities to scratch on their favorite cat tree, keep your home quiet, keep visitors away for a while, and re-establish a routine that's suitable to their needs.

4. Pain

When a cat is experiencing pain they will likely engage in behaviors that may seem out of the ordinary or out of context. Vocalizing, changes in mood, not eating, hiding, obsessively licking an area of their body, and open-mouth panting can all be signs a cat is experiencing pain and should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Johnson-Bennett notes that the pain could be due to a recent injury or an underlying medical condition. Cats don't always tell us where they are hurting and it can be hard to pinpoint a cause of pain, especially if you have a very active kitty. But, if you think your cat may be experiencing pain, no matter the reason, take action.

"It warrants a veterinary check up," Entriken says.

5. Underlying Medical Condition

A cat that begins to pant excessively seemingly out of the blue, or seems to pant at different times throughout the day, may not be feeling well and could have a medical issue that needs immediate attention. Johnson-Bennett says that cardiovascular or respiratory issues may be at the root of the problem. Other serious conditions like heartworm disease could also be a cause. Don't hesitate to make an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice your cat breathing heavily or open-mouth panting when they haven't just been playing.

While panting is a normal dog behavior, it can be abnormal and concerning when your cat does it. If you're not sure about the exact cause of your cat's panting, visit your local veterinarian for a wellness check up and for great advice on what to do next.

"If your cat is panting and there doesn't seem to be a known cause, always contact your veterinarian," Johnson-Bennett says.

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