Seeing your dog struggle to breathe can be very alarming and there is definitely cause for concern. However, it is important not to panic if your dog is experiencing difficulty breathing as it may cause additional stress for your dog. Any breathing difficulties should be considered an emergency and demand immediate attention from your veterinarian to determine the cause and course of treatment.
However, differentiating between a dog’s normal breathing and respiratory distress is not always as simple as it sounds. While at a rest, a healthy dog should have a respiratory rate around 20 to 34 breaths per minute and appear to put little effort into each breath. Although, increased respiration or panting is your dog’s normal reaction to heat, exercise, stress or excitement; if you suspect this to be the case, let your dog rest and cool off to see if breathing returns to normal. As an owner, you should develop a sense of your dog’s normal respiratory rate and sound before any health problems evolve. With this knowledge, you will be able to quickly notice subtle changes in your dog’s respiratory rate or effort before a crisis develops.
Symptoms & Causes of Breathing Difficulties in Dogs
Dogs experiencing breathing difficulties can develop various symptoms related to the specific health problem they are facing and how severe it is. Your veterinarian will be able to establish the particular type of respiratory distress your dog is facing in order to determine all possible causes.
The three most common types of breathing abnormalities among dogs include dyspnea (labored breathing), tachypnea (rapid breathing), and abnormal panting, each with their own list of symptoms. Some dogs, however, may develop a combination of respiratory problems or other symptoms, such as coughing, depending on the underlying problem.
The key to identifying dyspnea is to notice the level of effort your dog is putting into breathing. The difficulty may occur when breathing in (inspiratory dyspnea), when breathing out (expiratory dyspnea), or a combination of the two. Other symptoms include:
- Chest wall and belly move more than normal while breathing
- Nostrils flare when breathing
- Breathing with an open mouth, but not panting
- Neck and head extended low and in front of the body
- Noisy breathing
Dyspnea may be the result of a number of diseases or conditions, including:
- Conditions of the nose: small nostrils, infections, tumors, foreign objects
- Conditions of the throat or trachea: elongated soft palate, tumors, tracheal collapse, foreign objects
- Conditions of the lungs: infections, pulmonary edema, heart enlargement, heartworm, tumors, bleeding or bruising of the lungs, allergies, inflammatory disorders
- Conditions of the chest wall: traumatic injury of the chest wall, partial paralysis (i.e. tick paralysis)
- Conditions of the diaphragm: traumatic rupture, congenital hernias, enlarged liver, bloat, ascites
Noticing tachypnea is primarily identifying an increased respiratory rate without a warranted reason. Symptoms include:
- Increased rate of breathing
- Shallow breathing
- Mouth partially opened (not as wide as panting) or closed completely
Causes of tachypnea can include:
- Hypoxemia, or low oxygen in the blood
- Anemia, or low red blood cell count
- Blood clots in the vessels of the lungs
- Any of the causes of dyspnea may also cause tachypnea
Panting is your dog’s normal way to cool off after exercise or in high temperatures. But heavy panting may also be a sign of a bigger problem. Symptoms include:
- Increased respiratory rate
- Shallow breaths
- Widely open mouth
- Extended tongue
Your dog may experience abnormal panting as a response to any of the following:
- Metabolic Acidosis (when the body produces too much acid or can’t remove it normally)
- High blood pressure
- Some of the causes of dyspnea or tachypnea may also result in abnormal panting
Diagnosis & Treatment
When you visit your veterinarian you will need to give her a complete history of your dog’s health including the onset of symptoms and possible incidents that may have preceded the condition. During the exam, your vet will observe your dog’s breathing and listen to his chest for specific sounds that may help identify the problem. Your dog’s gum color may also be evaluated to quickly assess oxygen levels.
Treatment will depend on the final diagnosis of your dog’s breathing problems. If your dog is experiencing extreme respiratory distress, your veterinarian will give him oxygen prior to doing any tests. In severe cases, your dog may also be admitted to the hospital until his condition is stable. Your veterinarian will work with you to effectively treat any underlying problems and develop a management plan if the issue is chronic. Together, you and your vet will determine the best course of action.