Dog breathing problems can affect all breeds and ages and can quickly become life-threatening. If your dog is having a hard time breathing, he should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
How the Dog Respiratory System Works
Diseases in any part of the respiratory system, and even in other parts of the body, can lead to breathing problems 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 the rest of 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.
Respiration and Respiratory Rate for Dogs
Differentiating between a dog who is breathing normally and a dog having trouble 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, or after vigorous play? With this knowledge in hand, you will be able to pick up subtle changes in your dog’s respiratory rate and his breathing before a crisis develops.
Symptoms of Breathing Difficulties in Dogs
Dogs who are having trouble breathing can develop different symptoms that are related to the specific health problem they are facing and the severity of it. Your veterinarian will identify the specific type of breathing difficulty your dog is having to help narrow down the potential causes.
Labored breathing in dogs (dyspnea), rapid breathing (tachypnea), and abnormal panting are common types of breathing abnormalities that affect dogs.
Labored Breathing in Dogs (Dyspnea)
When dogs are working harder to breathe than circumstances warrant, they are said to be dyspneic, or suffering from dyspnea. Breathing difficulties can happen when breathing in (inspiratory dyspnea), when breathing out (expiratory dyspnea), or both. 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 necessarily panting)
- Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body
- Neck and head held low and out in front of the body (extended)
- Noisy breathing
Rapid Breathing in Dogs (Tachypnea)
When dogs are breathing faster than circumstances warrant, they are said to be tachypneic, or suffering from tachypnea. Common symptoms include:
- Breathing rate 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 in Dogs
Panting can be a normal way for dogs to cool themselves in response to exercise or high temperatures, or it can be an indication of a breathing problem. Panting in dogs is characterized by:
- Fast breathing
- Usually shallow breaths
- Wide 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 in Dogs
- Diseases of the nose
- Small nostrils
- Foreign object
- Diseases of the throat and windpipe (trachea)
- Roof of the mouth is too long (elongated soft palate)
- Foreign object
- Tracheal collapse
- Diseases of the lungs
- Diseases of the small airways in the lungs (bronchi and bronchioles)
- 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 of blood or other fluids
- Diseases of the chest wall
- Injury to the chest wall (trauma)
- Partial paralysis of the chest wall (e.g., tick paralysis, trauma)
- Diseases of the diaphragm
- Injury to the diaphragm (e.g., traumatic rupture)
- Congenital hernias
- Diseases of muscle
- Diseases that make the belly press on the diaphragm
- Enlarged liver, stomach or spleen
- Stomach filled with air (bloat)
- Fluid in the belly (ascites)
Tachypnea (Fast Breathing) in Dogs
- 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
- High body temperature (fever or during exercise)
- Metabolic acidosis (when the body produces too much acid or can’t remove it normally)
- High blood pressure
- High thyroid hormone levels
- Some of the causes of dyspnea and tachypnea in dogs may also result in panting
Diagnosis of Dog Breathing Problems
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 your dog has adequate blood flow and oxygenation.
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 him 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.
Treating Dogs with Breathing Problems
Treatment will depend on the final diagnosis a veterinarian makes for your dog's breathing problems. If your dog’s breathing problem is severe, he will need to be admitted into the hospital until his condition is stable. Your dog will probably be given oxygen to help him breathe.
Any prescription pet medications and procedures that your dog needs will depend on the cause and severity of the breathing problem. Your dog's activity will be restricted until the breathing problem is sufficiently under control.
Managing Breathing Problems in Dogs
Once your dog is able to return home with you, it is very important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions closely. Give all of the medications as directed, and stick to the scheduled progress checks.
Your veterinarian may repeat some of the tests that were done when your dog was diagnosed to determine how your dog is responding to treatment. Depending on the severity of your dog's problem, his activity level may need to be reduced.
The prognosis for dogs with breathing difficulties depends on the underlying cause. If you notice any worsening in the way your dog is breathing, it is important to consult with your veterinarian immediately.