Breathing Disorders

Problems may arise anywhere along the respiratory tract. Conditions affecting the upper part of the respiratory tract include foreign bodies in the nostrils or the throat and infections, such as kennel cough. Lower respiratory tract disorders include bronchitis, pneumonia and pleural effusion. Virtually all respiratory disorders cause changes in the affected dog's breathing pattern.

Unusual breathing is often the first sign of a respiratory problem and therefore may be an important diagnostic clue. Your dog takes breaths between 10 and 30 times a minute. The normal breathing rate is dependent on size, being slower in large individuals and faster in smaller ones. You need to become accustomed to your dog's breathing pattern, including the normal signs that the dog makes as it breathes in and out. This knowledge will make it easier for you to detect and changes from the normal pattern. Like humans, dogs breathe faster after exercise. They may also pant in hot weather and when excited or nervous. Rapid breathing also occurs, however, in dangerous conditions, such as shock, poisoning, or heatstroke. Contact your veterinarian immediately if your dog's breathing rate has suddenly increased for no obvious reason. Shallow breathing means that something is interfering the normal expansion and contraction of the chest.

Black-and-white pointer type dog

A dog with shallow breathing compensates by breathing more rapidly. Pain, for example, from bruising or damage to the ribs, can cause this problem. If your dog has developed shallow breathing, and particularly if it has suffered an injury, contact your vet immediately. Exposure to a number of different chemicals, such as nitrites, naphthalene (mothballs), local anesthetics, nitrate-accumulating plants and chlorates, can cause a condition called methemoglobinemia characterized by the presence of altered altered hemoglobin in the blood.

Difficulty breathing is always a cause for concern. Possible causes include heart failure, lung disease, buildup of fluid in the chest, trauma (damaged diaphragm), and tumors. Do not mistake normal panting for labored breathing. Panting, which is shallow, rapid, open-mouthed breathing, is not a medical problem; it is what hot, nervous, excited, or exhausted dogs do. Dogs pant to lose heat. Because dogs do not sweat anywhere except on the pads of their feet, this cooling process is very important. However, panting is also a sign of stress. When in a situation that bothers him, your dog might begin to pant. If you notice this type of panting during a training session, take the pressure off. Have him do something he can do well, such as sit, praise him for sitting and then take a break. Rub his tummy, throw the ball for a few minutes, and relax. Then go back to your training, but ease the pressure somewhat. Although panting is normal, increased panting can be a sign of a breathing problem, or heart disease, or even Cushing's disease. Tell your veterinarian if your dog suddenly begins to pant in situations where he wouldn't otherwise. Pain sometimes causes a dog to pant, as can drugs, such as corticosteroids. One indicator of whether panting is healthy is the color of the tongue: a pink tongue indicates plenty of oxygen in the blood. Contact your vet if your dog starts panting for no apparent reason.

Any change in a dog's breathing sounds is significant. Possible causes include obstruction in the upper respiratory tract and paralysis of the vocal folds. Contact your vet if your dog develops wheezing and coughing. Wheezing is not as common in dogs as it is in people. When it does occur, it usually indicates a problem affecting the lungs, or inflammation of the bronchi caused by allergy, irritation, or infection. Wheezing dogs should receive veterinary attention within 24 hours. Coughing indicates irritation in the respiratory tract. During coughing, the trachea contracts by about one-sixth of its normal size, forcing air out at high speed to dislodge any foreign matter from the airways. A dog that is coughing persistently should be taken to see a vet within 24 hours.

There are various diagnostic techniques that your vet can use to find out what is causing your dog's breathing problems. Depending on the clinical signs, the vet may check inside the dog's mouth or nostrils for any foreign objects, feel the chest and the rib cage, and listen to the lungs using a stethoscope. The vet may also take the dog's temperature; a raised temperature may indicate a respiratory tract infection. X-rays are often used to detect foreign bodies in the airways, and also to look for structural abnormalities of the respiratory tract, fluid buildup in the lungs, or tumors. The vet may take a swab of nasal discharge or of fluids from the throat to make a culture, which will reveal the organisms responsible for infections. A stool sample will be analyzed, if a parasitic infestation is suspected to be the cause of lung damage. Tracheal wash, also called lavage, is generally performed in conjunction with bronchoscopy to examine the trachea and bronchi. The dog is first anesthetized and a needle is inserted through the throat. Saline fluid is then flushed through the needle into the trachea. This small amount of fluid is withdrawn into a syringe, and the cells that it now contains are examined by a cytologist. Other portions of the fluid sample are retained for bacterial cell culture. Although allergies in dogs, even those that are due to inhaled substances, are more likely to show up as a skin complaint, they can also manifest themselves in the form of respiratory signs. Therefore, an intradermal skin tests or ELISA tests may be carried out if a dog's breathing problems are thought to be due to an allergy to a particular substance.

What to Do If Your Dog Is Choking

First distinguish choking from gagging. Choking is an emergency that needs an immediate treatment. If your dog is conscious, put your arms around the dog's belly, make a fist, and squeeze firmly upward and forward just behind the rib cage. For a small dog, place your hands on either side of the animal's belly and then squeeze the body firmly upward and forward. If the dog has lost consciousness, place it on its side. Put the heels of both your hands just behind the dog's back ribs. Press sharply to expel the blockage. Use your finger to remove debris from the mouth. Give artificial respiration and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, if necessary. Never give cough medicine to a dog that is gagging or choking, as it may prevent expulsion of the foreign body object and make the problem worse.

Epiglottic Retroversion

Epiglottic retroversion is a rare cause of upper airway obstruction characterized by with stridor. The most common breeds affected by this disorder are Yorkshire Terrier, Cocker Spaniel, Chinese Pug, and Pekingese, while English Bulldog, Beagle, Boston Terrier, French Bulldog, Boxer, Shih Tzu, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Pomeranian are only rarely reported. Based on the hypothesis that epiglottic retroversion potentially could be caused by hypoglossal or glossopharyngeal nerve dysfunction or both, these dogs may be predisposed to aspiration pneumonia because the glossopharyngeal nerve is involved in the pharyngeal phase of swallowing.

Clinical signs are worse during sleep. Epiglottic retroversion may represent an unrecognized component of brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome. Treatment of this disorder may require surgery. The surgical procedure is minimally painful and therefore once the dog has been observed to eat or drink without complication, they can be discharged.1


  1. Clinical Features and Outcome of Dogs with Epiglottic Retroversion With or Without Surgical Treatment: 24 Cases. S.C. Skerrett,corresponding author J.K. McClaran, P.R. Fox, and D. Palma

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