Do Cats Normally Breathe Faster When They Purr? Our Vet Explains
Cats can purr for many reasons, and this manifestation has positive effects on them and their owners from a physical and mental point of view. When they purr, cats usually show us that they are calm—this action helps them to relax and soothe themselves. However, you may get scared when you see your cat breathing faster than normal when purring. But you don’t have to panic! Rapid breathing is perfectly normal when cats purr.
Continue reading if you want to find out what the mechanism behind purring is and why cats may breathe fast when purring.
Is It Normal for Cats to Breathe Faster When They Purr?
It is normal for cats to breathe faster when they purr. Their breathing is faster than that of humans (12 to 16 breaths per minute),1 with the average breathing frequency in cats being 15–30 breaths per minute.2 This respiratory frequency can be influenced by certain factors, such as illness, stress, sleeping, purring, excitement, and others. For example, when cats purr, their respiratory rate increases, and when they sleep, it decreases. As a result, it is perfectly normal for cats to breathe faster when they purr. So don’t panic if you see your cat breathing faster when purring.
However, although in most situations cats purr when they are relaxed and calm, there are cases where purring helps them calm down if they are stressed or suffering from a certain disease. In this case, if you notice your cat purrs at “odd” times, breathing fast, and showing other clinical signs (fever, pain, respiratory noises, hiding often, etc.), take them to a vet as there may be an underlying issue.
What Is Happening When Cats Purr?
When cats are still kittens, in the first days after birth, they cannot see or hear. Therefore, purring is a very important way of communication between the mother and kittens, through which she reassures them and shows them that she is present.
Cats can purr for other reasons besides those of joy and relaxation, such as stress or illness. They can purr to self-soothe and induce a state of relaxation. It has been scientifically proven that cats’ purring has the ability to increase the healing capacity of tissues, including bones. Cats’ purring has a frequency that is used therapeutically for edema,3 wounds, pain, or dyspnea.
The mechanism by which cats purr has not yet been fully understood, but studies carried out over the years have concluded that felines purr when they inhale and exhale using their diaphragm, intercostal muscles,4 and larynx to create the vibrations made by their vocal cords. Some studies suggest that the hyoid bone in the larynx that supports the tongue could have a role in these vibrations.5
However, not all felines can purr. For example, lions, tigers, jaguars, or leopards cannot purr, but their vocal cords can produce roars or characteristic growls. The difference between big cats and domestic cats is that big felines have an incompletely ossified hyoid bone, while house cats have a completely ossified hyoid bone.
Fast Breathing Explained
In medical terms, rapid breathing caused by pathological factors is called tachypnea.6 However, cats can show rapid breathing after playing, running, when they purr, or when anxious and scared, and this is normal.
When they play or have the “zoomies,” you may have noticed that some cats stick out their tongues like dogs and breathe fast. Like dogs, cats have sweat glands in only a few places on the body (in the hairless areas—paws, lips, chin, and around the anus). Therefore, to cool down, some cats breathe fast with their tongues out. The saliva on the tongue evaporates, allowing cats to cool down. More precisely, the blood that reaches the tongue vessels removes part of the surplus heat and returns to the body with a lower temperature, helping cats to cool down.
Also, fast breathing helps cats cool down through the ventilation that takes place at the level of the lungs. In the lungs, the air that enters has a lower temperature than the cat’s body temperature, and when it exits, it removes part of the excess temperature.
In pathological cases, fast breathing can endanger your cat’s life. Therefore, it is important to take your cat to the vet if they are breathing rapidly, apparently for no reason.
What Are the Signs of Fast Breathing?
When your cat is healthy, rapid breathing during purring, after running or playing, or due to stress/fear should not be accompanied by other clinical signs. You will see your cat breathing faster than normal, and that’s it.
In pathological cases, rapid breathing can be accompanied by the following clinical signs:
- Respiratory noises, such as wheezing
- Loud breathing
- Breathing with their mouth open or panting
- Rapid breathing when sleeping or relaxed and calm
- Nostrils flaring
- Your cat’s abdomen and chest move with each breath
- Excessive sneezing
- Blue gums
What Are the Causes of Fast Breathing?
As mentioned before, abnormally fast breathing in cats can be the consequence of some medical conditions and should be evaluated as soon as possible by the vet. Potential causes of pathological rapid breathing in cats include:
- Anaphylactic shock
- Heart disease
- Heat stroke
- Heartworms (Dirofilaria spp.)
- Tumors in the throat or lungs
- Respiratory infections
- Low levels of oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia)
- Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs)
- Bleeding in the lungs
- Foreign objects stuck in the trachea or the airways
- Pleural effusion (fluid in the chest cavity)
- Ascites (fluid in the abdominal cavity)
- Weakened immune system
Rapid breathing can occur when cats are stressed, anxious, scared, tired, purring, or due to excessive heat. In these cases, it is normal for your cat to breathe faster than normal, so there is no reason to panic.
How Do I Care for a Cat with Fast Breathing?
If you have noticed your cat is breathing faster than usual, try and detect what has led to this and eliminate it. For example, if your cat is scared, try to eliminate the causative factor and calm your cat with encouraging words and petting (if they accept). If your cat is anxious or stressed and breathing fast, move them to a quiet room without other triggers. In some cases, the veterinarian may recommend calming medication for them.
On hot days, it is recommended to give your cat extra fresh water in order not to overheat. If your cat breathes fast while sleeping (has more than 30 breaths per minute), they may suffer from heart disease.
If you notice other clinical signs besides rapid breathing, contact a veterinarian.
How to Check if Your Cat’s Breathing Is Normal
The best time to check your cat’s breathing rate is when they are relaxed or sleeping. Count how many times their chest moves in one minute. You can also count for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 or 30 seconds and multiply by 2, but it won’t be as accurate.
Your cat’s breathing must be even and regular, not forced and heavy. Cats usually use their intercostal muscles when breathing. If they have chest problems, they will also use their abdominal muscles (abdominal breathing) and breathe with difficulty.
The breathing rate is a very good index of your cat’s health. It can show if your pet is having heart or lung problems. If your cat sleeps more than usual and breathes quickly or with difficulty, an emergency consultation is necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is It Normal for Cats to Breathe Faster While Purring?
It is normal for cats to breathe faster after prolonged exertion, when they purr, or when they are stressed, scared, or anxious. Kittens also have a normal respiratory rate greater than 30 breaths per minute. On the other hand, it is not normal for cats to breathe fast when sleeping or not exerting any physical effort. This could indicate they have a health problem, and it is recommended to take them to a vet.
Does Purring Help Cats Breathe?
Purring is a self-soothing mechanism that cats can exhibit when they are sick or stressed. As a result, cats’ purring can help them breathe better when they have breathing problems, as it calms them down. The low-frequency vibrations that cats produce when they purr can also have healing effects on the affected tissues, in case of trauma or when they are sick.
When purring, cats breathe faster, which is normal. Cats’ purring can occur when they are calm, stressed, or sick. If your cat also shows other clinical signs when they breathe fast, such as breathing noises, blue gums, fever, panting, lethargy, or abdominal breathing, it is wise to take them to a vet because they may be sick. Also, if your cat breathes faster when they are relaxed or sleeping, it is possible they are suffering from heart disease and should be taken to a vet.
If your cat does not show any other clinical signs and breathes fast when she purrs, don’t panic, it is normal.
Featured Image Credit: AleksDaria, Shutterstock