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Home Breathing Rate Evaluation

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Sonya G. Gordon DVM, DVSc, DACVIM Cardiology

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Did you know that you can help your veterinarian treat your pet’s heart disease by counting their breathing rate at home, and watching for other clues that your pet is not doing as well as you think? Using simple techniques, you can learn how to become an invaluable part of your pet’s healthcare team.

Why should I evaluate my pet’s breathing rate at home?

An increase in your pet’s breathing rate while resting quietly or sleeping is a very important early clue (clinical sign) that your pet may be developing heart failure and needs to see your veterinarian. Your observations can help limit how sick your pet becomes, reduce the chances that your pet will ever have to stay overnight in the hospital, and help reduce the costs associated with heart failure treatment.

What is a normal resting or sleeping breathing rate in a dog and cat?

In general, all normal dogs and cats, dogs and cats with asymptomatic heart disease, and dogs diagnosed with heart failure that is well-controlled with medication, have a breathing rate of between 15-30 breaths every minute when they are resting calmly or sleeping. Lower rates are possible and are no cause for concern, providing your pet is otherwise acting normally. It is considered normal for breathing rates to be much higher than this when dogs and cats are hot, stressed, or active.

Resting/sleeping breathing rates that are consistently greater than 30 breaths per minute are increased and considered abnormal. For some individuals, rates lower than 30 breaths per minute may be considered increased and abnormal by your veterinarian. Ask your veterinarian what rate is considered increased and abnormal for your dog or cat.

What should I do if the resting or sleeping breathing rate is increased in my pet?

The first thing to do is to count the breathing rate a few times over the next couple of hours to ensure it is a consistent finding. If the breathing rate is consistently increased, then you need to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. Typically, your veterinarian will recommend a recheck appointment in the next day or two, so medications can be adjusted.

If the resting/sleeping breathing rate is increased and other clinical signs as outlined below are observed, then the situation may represent an emergency. In this case, especially if it is after hours, you may need to go to a veterinary emergency center.

 

What are the clinical signs that may be associated with heart disease or heart failure in dogs and cats?

  • Fast breathing when resting or sleeping (more than 30 breaths per minute)
  • Increased effort associated with breathing (labored breathing)
  • Restlessness, agitation, and difficulty finding a comfortable position to sleep
  • A change in how your pet sleeps (e.g., if your pet normally sleeps on his back or on his side, or curled up in a ball, and now sleeps sitting up or in a “sphinx” position).
  • Coughing or gagging
  • Weakness
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Collapse or fainting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Distended abdomen
  • Depressed attitude or quiet and not interactive

Cat only

  • Hind leg lameness or weakness
  • Hind end paralysis
  • Front leg lameness
  • Pain

How do I count the resting or sleeping breathing rate in my pet?

It is preferable to wait until your pet is sleeping, but your pet may be resting quietly. It is important that cats not be purring when you count their breathing rate. The sleeping breathing rate is typically a little lower than the resting breathing rate.

Watch your pet’s chest; it moves in and out as dogs and cats breathe. One breath is counted when the chest has moved in and out once. Use your watch or phone to time 30 seconds, and count how many breaths occur during that 30 second period. Next, multiply the number of breaths that you counted by 2 to get the number of breaths in 60 seconds (1 minute). Alternatively, you can count the total number of breaths that occur during in 60 seconds, and then there is no need to multiply. Keep a record, such as in a diary or on a calendar, of the breathing rates you count. There are some free smartphone apps that can help you keep track of your pet’s home breathing rate.

How often should I count this breathing rate in my pet?

Typically, your veterinarian will have you count the breathing rate once per day for a week while you are learning, so that you become comfortable performing this exercise. This way, you and your veterinarian can also learn what your pet’s normal resting/sleeping breathing rate is.

If your pet has asymptomatic heart disease (i.e., is not demonstrating any clinical signs): Home breathing rates do not need to be evaluated in all pets with asymptomatic heart disease. Your veterinarian will tell you if and when it is time to start monitoring the home breathing rate in your pet. In general, it is most important to start in pets with advanced asymptomatic heart disease that have a high risk of developing heart failure within the next year. In this case, breathing rates are typically recorded once or twice per week, although your veterinarian may ask you to monitor it more frequently or even once per day.

If your pet has heart failure: Home breathing rate should be evaluated at least once per day in all pets that have heart failure and are now taking medications such as furosemide (a diuretic).

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