Tracheal Collapse in Dogs

Dogs have a tube of cartilage in their throat that is used to move air back and forth between the lungs and the dog’s nose and mouth. This tube helps the dog to breathe. Sometimes, this tube (called the trachea, or windpipe), can collapse, much like the wall of a straw.

Collapse can occur because the cartilage rings didn’t form properly when the dog was born, or because they have become weakened for some reason, maybe due to age or other health factors.

When this happens, your dog’s airways become obstructed which makes breathing a whole lot more difficult for your dog, interfering in his ability to breathe easily and freely.

Risk Factors for Tracheal Collapse

A tracheal collapse is a common condition that happens most often in mini and toy dog breeds. However, it can occur in any dog, including the larger breeds. Tracheal collapse in dogs causes an airway obstruction in the windpipe that hinders your dog’s ability to breathe and creates inflammation along their airways.

Dogs that have existing health conditions such as canine heart disease or canine lung disease, dogs that suffer from obesity, dogs that have respiratory infections, kennel cough, or allergic bronchitis, and even dogs that are exposed to environmental pollutants like dust, chemicals, or cigarette smoke are all more susceptible to tracheal collapse. Yorkshire Terriers in particular often have this problem, as well as breeds like the Poodle, Pomeranian, Chihuahua, and Maltese.

You also see tracheal collapse more often in dogs that wear choke collars. The average age before clinical signs of a tracheal collapse begins to show is about 6 to 7 years old and often may not show at all unless there is a secondary health condition that triggers it, such as the dog being overweight, or suffering from canine Cushing’s disease, heart disease, or respiratory disease.

What Causes a Tracheal Collapse?

There is no known cause for tracheal collapse, although it is thought to be a congenital defect. Unfortunately, tracheal collapse is progressive, chronic, and irreversible. It can, however, be managed with certain medications and lifestyle changes, such as reducing the dog’s weight and eliminating environmental irritants. Dog surgery may be beneficial in some cases, but you would have to see your vet for an accurate assessment to weigh the risks.

What are the Symptoms of Tracheal Collapse?

When a dog’s trachea collapses, the signature indicator is the sound they make that falls somewhere between a cough and a honk. It’s a chronic, dry sound similar the honking sound geese make. There isn’t usually any mucous produced with the cough and usually, inflammation of the trachea soon follows which causes even more coughing. A dog with tracheal collapse also may exhibit signs of labored breathing, especially during exertion.

Other symptoms of a collapsed trachea include gagging frequently, a blue tint to their gums, respiratory problems, low energy and lethargy, exercise intolerance, fainting, making a wheezing sound on inhalation, coughing when excited, coughing when they are picked up, or coughing when their collar is pulled on.

Essentially, a dog with tracheal collapse will suffer from chronic coughing fits made worse by external factors like stress, excitement, eating and drinking, exercise, even hot weather, or when any kind of pressure is placed on the trachea. The cough, however, is the most classic and recognizable symptom of a collapsed trachea.

Though the condition shouldn’t be painful, it can be uncomfortable and cause your dog significant distress if left untreated.

Diagnosing Tracheal Collapse in Dogs

You should see your vet right away if you think your dog may have a collapsed trachea. They will usually start by taking a thorough medical history and providing a physical exam. They may place gentle pressure on your dog’s trachea themselves to see if it produces a cough, so they can properly assess.

Blood work is often ordered to get an overview of your dog’s health status and chest x-rays may be ordered to assess your dog’s airway and uncover any underlying conditions with their heart or lungs that may be present. Tracheal collapse is rarely visible, but other problems that may be contributing to your dog’s problem could be revealed. Sometimes a specialist may be needed to properly diagnose your dog.

If that happens, they may give your dog a moving x-ray called a fluoroscopy to show what’s happening as your dog breathes and possibly an endoscopy to get a visual on what may be going on. They may also take samples of fluids to analyze and try giving your dog an echocardiogram to make sure the heart is functioning properly.

How Do You Treat Tracheal Collapse?

There are several treatment options for a dog that is diagnosed with tracheal collapse. Typically, medications are used to control the condition, as well as some lifestyle changes. Helping your dog lose weight can be very helpful in managing a collapsed trachea and if there are environmental factors that are making your dog’s condition worse, eliminating them can be an improvement. If you smoke, don’t smoke in the home, and if you use chemicals that seem to irritate your dog’s symptoms, get rid of them. You can also switch from using a collar on your dog to using a harness instead so that no pressure is placed on your dog’s neck and trachea.

Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin may be recommended to help slow down cartilage deterioration and reduce inflammation in the joints. Feeding your dog a diet that is rich in moisture is also beneficial so that they don’t choke and gag on hard kibble and trigger yet more coughing, while treatments like acupuncture and chiropractic may be beneficial as well. You can also try placing your dog’s food and water on a stand so that they are elevated, and your dog doesn’t have to bend its neck to drink.

Avoid overheating your dog because that can make symptoms worse and consider swimming with your dog because it’s a great form of exercise that will keep your dog cool while still providing a challenge.

Your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications like corticosteroids to help with inflammation and any swelling that may be present in your dog’s windpipe. Bronchodilators are sometimes given to help dilate the tiny airways in your dog’s lungs, so they can breathe easier and feel less pressure on the trachea tube.

Your vet may give your dog a cough suppressant to help reduce further inflammation and control your dog’s cough. Coughing is a cycle that causes more inflammation, which then causes more coughing. So, if you can control the cough, you can improve your dog’s condition quite a bit.

Your dog may be given antibiotics as well if your vet is concerned about infection. Respiratory infections are common with a collapsed trachea, so best to be proactive if an infection is suspected. Additionally, dogs may be prescribed sedatives to help keep them calm. Because tracheal collapse symptoms can be aggravated by excitement, keeping your dog calm can help alleviate coughing and trouble breathing.

Another medication your vet may try is giving your dog anabolic steroids to both help with inflammation and strengthen the cartilage of your dog’s windpipe. And finally, when medications and lifestyle changes don’t help, and the condition is severe, dog surgery may be warranted. Just keep in mind that surgery is a big step with its own list of risks and rewards. Evaluate carefully before deciding to go the surgical route. Also, keep in mind that surgery in dogs older than six years doesn’t have as great of a prognosis as younger dogs.

If you do choose surgery, it is typically performed by placing a stent inside the trachea to hold it open properly. Be warned the procedure can be expensive, and sometimes the stent may need replacing due to unforeseen complications. Tracheal collapse surgery is difficult and requires an expert in the field.

Can Tracheal Collapse in Dogs Be Prevented?

Currently there is no way to prevent a tracheal collapse in dogs that is known. Cough control is extremely important in managing outcomes as well as the age of the dog and the underlying health conditions the dog may have. Reducing obesity is also extremely important in managing tracheal collapse effectively. Most dogs do very well with the right treatment and care and can go on to live long, healthy lives, even with a chronic, progressive condition like tracheal collapse.

Difference Between a Reverse Sneeze and Tracheal Collapse

There is a lot of confusion around these two disorders, but they definitely are not the same thing. Though they both trigger coughing, the type of coughing fit is different. With a reverse sneeze, the condition is not chronic, it’s episodic.