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Breathing Difficulties in Dogs

Dyspnea, Tachypnea, and Panting in Dogs

The respiratory system has many parts, including the nose, mouth, throat (pharynx and larynx), windpipe (trachea), and lungs. Air is pulled in through the nose or mouth and is then carried down into the lungs, through a process referred to as inspiration. In the lungs, oxygen is transferred to the red blood cells. The red blood cells then carry oxygen to other organs in the body.

While oxygen is being transferred to the red blood cells, carbon dioxide is transferred from the red blood cells to the air within the lungs. It is then pushed out through the nose or mouth through a process referred to as expiration.

Diseases in any part of the respiratory system and even in other parts of the body can lead to breathing difficulties in dogs. The problem can affect all breeds and ages and can quickly become life threatening. If your dog is having problems with breathing, he should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Respiration and Respiratory Rate for Dogs 

Differentiating between a dog who is breathing normally and one who is having difficulty breathing is not always as simple as it might seem. At rest, healthy dogs should have a respiratory rate of between 20 and 34 breaths per minute and they should not appear to be putting much effort into breathing. Of course, dogs may breathe more rapidly and/or more deeply in response to normal factors such as warm temperatures, exercise, stress, and excitement.

Owners should get a feel for what is normal for their dogs before any health problems develop. How does your dog breathe when he is at rest? While going for a walk? After vigorous play? With this knowledge in hand, you will be able to pick up subtle changes in your dog’s respiratory rate and effort before a crisis develops.

Symptoms of Breathing Difficulties in Dogs

Dogs who are having trouble breathing can develop different symptoms related to the specific health problem they are facing and how severe it is. Your veterinarian will identify the specific type of breathing difficulty your dog is having to help narrow down the potential causes. 

Dyspnea (labored breathing), tachypnea (rapid breathing), and abnormal panting are common types of breathing abnormalities that affect dogs.

Labored Breathing (Dyspnea)

When dogs are working harder to breathe than circumstances warrant, they are said to be dyspneic (suffering from dyspnea). Common symptoms include:

  • The chest wall and sometimes the belly will move more than is normal when breathing
  • Nostrils may flare open when breathing
  • Breathing with an open mouth (but not panting)
  • Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body
  • Neck and head held low and out in front of the body (extended)
  • Breathing difficulties may occur primarily when breathing in (inspiratory dyspnea), when breathing out (expiratory dyspnea), or a combination of the two.
  • Noisy breathing 

Fast Breathing (Tachypnea)

When dogs are breathing faster than circumstances warrant, they are said to be tachypneic (suffering from tachypnea). Common symptoms include:

  • Rate of breathing is faster than normal
  • Mouth may be closed or partially open, but usually not open as wide as during panting.
  • Breathing is often more shallow than normal.

 

Panting

Panting can be a normal way for dogs to cool themselves in response to exercise or high temperatures or an indication of a breathing problem. Panting is characterized by:

  • Fast breathing
  • Usually shallow breaths
  • Widely open mouth
  • Extended tongue

Some dogs will develop a combination of breathing problems (e.g., expiratory dyspnea and tachypnea) or other symptoms, like coughing, depending on the underlying problem.  

Causes of Breathing Difficulties in Dogs

Dyspnea

  • Diseases of the nose
    • Small nostrils
    • Infection
    • Tumors
    • Foreign object​
  • Diseases of the throat and windpipe (trachea)
    • Roof of the mouth is too long (elongated soft palate)
    • Tumors
    • Foreign object
    • Tracheal collapse
  • Diseases of the lungs
  • Diseases of the small airways in the lungs (bronchi and bronchioles)
    • Infection
    • Tumors
    • Allergies
    • Inflammatory disorders (e.g., chronic bronchitis)
  • Diseases of the space surrounding the lungs (pleural space)
    • Heart failure with fluid around the lungs (pulmonary effusion)
    • Accumulations of air
    • Accumulations blood or other fluids
    • Tumors
    • Infection
  • Diseases of the chest wall
    • Injury to the chest wall (trauma)
    • Partial paralysis of the chest wall (e.g., tick paralysis)
  • Diseases of the diaphragm
    • Injury to the diaphragm (e.g., traumatic rupture)
    • Congenital hernias
  • Diseases that make the belly press on the diaphragm
    • Enlarged liver
    • Stomach filled with air (bloat)
    • Fluid in the belly (ascites)

Tachypnea (Fast Breathing)

  • Low oxygen level in the blood (hypoxemia)
  • Low red blood cell level (anemia)
  • Blood clots within vessels in the lungs
  • The causes of dyspnea in dogs may also result in tachypnea

Panting

  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Medications
  • High body temperature (fever or during exercise)
  • Metabolic acidosis (when the body produces too much acid or can’t remove it normally)
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High thyroid hormone levels
  • Some of the causes of dyspnea and tachypnea in dogs may also result in panting

Diagnosis

Difficulty breathing can be a life-threatening emergency, and your dog should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. You will need to give a thorough history of your dog's health, onset of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have preceded this condition. During the examination, your veterinarian will carefully observe how your dog is breathing and listen to his chest for specific sounds that might help pinpoint the problem. Your dog's gum color will be evaluated as well, since the color of the gums can indicate whether oxygen levels are adequate or if your dog has a low red blood cell count (anemia). Your veterinarian may try to get your dog to cough by pressing on his windpipe. If your dog is having extreme difficulty breathing, the veterinarian will give it oxygen before doing any tests.

Initial diagnostic testing for dogs who are having trouble breathing can involve a complete blood count, biochemical profile, fecal examination, urine analysis, and chest x-rays. Additional procedures and testing may also be necessary. These can include ultrasound imaging, an electrocardiogram, specialized blood tests, analysis of fluid samples, rhinoscopy or bronchoscopy (using an instrument to look inside the nose or airways, respectively), surgery, and tissue biopsies, depending on the particulars of a dog’s case.   

 
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