“My cat is panting heavily” – this is a search term that people put into Google, looking for answers. Panting is normal for a cat but heatstroke (see below) is not. We’re used to seeing dogs pant but cats do it as well. It may be seen after exercise or if the cat is hot for whatever reason.
It is one of the chief ways a cat lowers her body temperature. The water from the mouth, tongue and lungs evaporates and is exchanged for cooler air.
Cats also cool themselves down by licking their fur. The saliva evaporates cooling them down due to the latent heat of evaporation. Cats also lose heat by perspiring through their paw pads (the same science is employed).
If your cat is panting heavily (laboured and rapid) it may be due to heatstroke if your cat is also anxious. Sometimes cats pant when they are frightened.
It is obviously sensible for cat owners to realise when a cat might become overheated. Cats should be protected from these situations. On a day-to-day basis, a domestic cat might pant (say, for example, when taken to the veterinarian because the inside of the car might be a warm and the cat is anxious) but a cat should not be in a situation where she pants heavily.
This is an emergency situation. It requires prompt treatment. Cats who are stressed drool a lot and lick themselves to spread saliva over their coats.
Causes of overheating might include:
- Environmental temperature is very high. Example: being left in a car in hot weather or being confined to a carrier without water.
- A disease of the airways which interferes with heat dissipation through panting.
- Lung or heart disease interfering with efficient breathing.
- High fever, seizures or strenuous exercise resulting in excessive heat production.
The breathing will be noisy and rapid and even frantic. The cat’s temperature will be high sometimes rising to over 106°F (41°C). If untreated the cat becomes unsteady on his feet and weaker. There may be diarrhoea and it may be bloody. The lips become pale blue or grey. The cat collapses into a coma and dies. A cat with suspected heatstroke should be seen by a veterinarian as a matter of urgency. Delay can cause kidney failure, seizures and cardiac arrhythmias.
The cat’s owner can cool their cat down by applying wet, cold towels to the armpits and groin as well as to the head or immerse the cat’s body but not the head in cool water. Alternatively the cat can be cooled down with a garden hose. Ice packs can be applied to the head in the groin area.
P.S. I have closely referred to Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook 3rd ed pages 24 and 25 with respect to heatstroke.