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What is Fluid In The Chest?

Fluid in the chest is also known as pleural effusion. This occurs when fluid is present outside the lungs, in the space between the lungs and the chest wall. Normally, this area only has a small amount of fluid simply to keep the lungs from adhering to the chest wall. When excessive amounts of fluid accumulate, serious complications can arise because the cat’s lungs cannot expand properly. This is a potentially life-threatening situation for your cat and emergency treatment is necessary.

While most cats are generally healthy, some can develop conditions that can compromise their health and well-being. Cats can develop fluid in the chest as a result of various conditions. Regardless of the cause, fluid in the chest in cats can be very serious.

Symptoms of Fluid In The Chest in Cats

If your cat has fluid in his chest, he will exhibit certain symptoms. Here are some of the most common symptoms seen in cats with this condition:

  • Lethargy
  • Breathing with his mouth open
  • Lack of appetite
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Bluish tint around mucous membranes
  • Intolerance to exercise
  • High respiratory rate
  • Coughing
  • Problems breathing when in an upright position


There are certain types of conditions that can cause fluid to accumulate in your cat’s lungs. Here are some that your veterinarian may look for when making a diagnosis:


Chylothorax is a rare condition that occurs when lymphatic fluid known as chyle builds up in the chest cavity. When this fluid reaches a certain level, the cat cannot breathe well because his lungs cannot expand fully.


Cats that have blood in the pleural space in the chest are diagnosed with hemothorax. Blood in the chest hinders lung expansion, similar to chylothorax and causes breathing problems. 

Causes of Fluid In The Chest in Cats

Certain conditions can cause pleural effusion in cats. Below are some of the most common causes of fluid build-up in cat’s lungs:

  • Bacterial infection of the lungs
  • Low levels of protein in the blood
  • Twisting of the lung
  • Cancer
  • Pancreatitis
  • Abnormal functioning of the lymphatic system
  • Viral infection of the lungs
  • Diaphragmatic hernia 
  • Fungal infection of the lungs
  • Blood clot in the lungs
  • Leaky blood vessels
  • Tumors in the chest
  • Heartworms (although rare in cats)
  • Traumatic injury
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disorders
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Being over hydrated
  • Higher than normal hydrostatic pressure
  • Blockage of the major vein to the heart, the vena cava

Diagnosis of Fluid In The Chest in Cats

Your doctor will need some important information from you to assist him in obtaining a diagnosis. He will begin by taking a detailed history from you regarding your cat’s health. Include any information about your cat’s birth history, previous medical conditions, medications and the date symptoms began. Your doctor will take your cat’s vital signs including temperature, weight, heart rate and respiration. He will also examine your cat and listen to his chest. A blood sample will be taken to search for signs of infection. A urinalysis will also be performed after your doctor obtains a sample of urine. If fluid is suspected, your doctor may take an X-ray or an ultrasound of his chest. Taking a fluid sample will also be key in determining the cause of pleural effusion.

Treatment of Fluid In The Chest in Cats

Fluid in the chest is an emergency and life-threatening for your cat. This condition should be treated as soon as you notice symptoms. Many cats that develop fluid in the chest have trouble breathing and deteriorate rapidly. The most important thing in treating this condition is removing the fluid quickly to restore free breathing. This is done by draining the fluid from the cat’s chest with a needle. Certain conditions such as chylothorax can cause as much as a quart of fluid to build-up in the chest. Once the fluid is gone, the lungs can expand normally and breathing returns to normal. If fluid continues to build-up after it is initially removed, veterinarians may perform surgery to install a shunt. This device removes the fluid from the chest automatically.

Recovery of Fluid In The Chest in Cats

The overall prognosis for cats that have fluid in the chest ranges from poor to fair. Recovery depends largely upon the cause of the condition. Many cats do not live long enough for the fluid to be removed from the pleural space. If your cat withstands the diagnostic process and fluid is successfully removed, his outlook is guarded but fair. Your cat also has a better chance of recovery and long-term management if your doctor is able to diagnose the cause of the condition. Cats with chylothorax have a favorable outlook if fluid production is resolved and is controlled. Many conditions will not return once the fluid is removed. 

Your doctor will provide you with detailed instructions regarding your cat’s care. Be sure to follow all his instructions exactly. Always report any changes in your cat’s condition or behavior as soon as it arises, especially if your cat begins to breathe with an open mouth. This is a sign he is having trouble breathing and he must be evaluated by a doctor quickly. Depending on the treatment provided, your doctor may want to re-evaluate your cat every few weeks until he is stable. If your cat has any underlying diseases or conditions that may cause fluid to build-up again, your doctor will treat him accordingly.