How Do I Help My Dog Who Is Struggling To Breathe?

Recognizing Respiratory Distress in Dogs

Dogs with respiratory distress will often exhibit obvious symptoms that pet owners can look out for. Some of the most common signs of breathing difficulty in dogs include:

  • Labored breathing – Dogs may breathe with an open mouth and extended neck as they struggle to get enough air. Their chest and abdomen will move dramatically with each breath. Labored breathing may happen continuously or occur in episodes.
  • Panting – While panting is normal for dogs, excessive panting or sudden onset of panting can signal trouble breathing. Panting may be accompanied by other symptoms.
  • Coughing – Coughing may indicate respiratory irritation, infection, inflammation, or fluid in the lungs. Coughs may be dry and hacking or productive with phlegm.
  • Blue gums/tongue – A bluish hue to a dog’s gums or tongue, medically known as cyanosis, indicates poor oxygenation.

According to the Maddie’s Fund, other signs of breathing difficulty can include weakness, collapse or loss of consciousness. Owners may notice a change in their dogs’ breathing sounds, such as wheezing, raspy noises, snoring or gurgling.

If a dog is showing any symptoms of respiratory distress, pet owners should monitor them closely and contact a veterinarian promptly. Breathing issues in dogs require veterinary assessment to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment.

Potential Causes of Breathing Issues

There are several potential underlying causes for breathing difficulties in dogs. Some of the most common include:

Heart Disease: Dogs with heart disease or congestive heart failure can develop fluid buildup in or around their lungs, making breathing difficult. Heart disease leads to inadequate pumping by the heart, allowing fluid to back up into the lungs. According to Tufts Veterinary School, heart disease is one of the most common causes of breathing difficulty (dyspnea) in dogs and cats.

Fluid in the Lungs: Fluid accumulation in or around the lungs, known as pulmonary edema, can interfere with normal breathing. This fluid buildup can be caused by heart disease, lung damage, trauma, or other underlying conditions.

Infections: Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections of the lungs or airways can cause inflammation, secretions, and breathing issues. Pneumonia, kennel cough, and fungal infections are common culprits.

Foreign Objects: Inhaled foreign objects like sticks, balls, bones, or other obstructions can become lodged in the airways, leading to breathing difficulty and distress.

Allergies: Allergies to pollen, mold, dust, or other inhaled particles can trigger asthmatic symptoms or airway inflammation in dogs, interfering with normal breathing.

First Aid for Respiratory Emergencies

If your dog is struggling to breathe or has suddenly collapsed and stopped breathing, remain calm but act quickly. Immediately move your dog to fresh air if indoors. If outdoors, move to a shady spot. Loosen any collar or harness which may be constricting your dog’s airway. Try to keep your dog as still as possible.

Check to see if your dog’s airways are clear and unblocked. Wipe away any mucus or saliva around their mouth or nose. Check for any foreign objects lodged in the throat. If you can reach the object, remove it gently. Do not perform the Heimlich maneuver on a dog.

If your dog is still not breathing, perform rescue breathing. Tilt your dog’s head back slightly to straighten the airway. Close their mouth and breathe directly into their nose until you see the chest expand. Allow the air to flow back out before giving the next breath. Give 1 breath every 3-5 seconds. Continue rescue breathing until your dog resumes breathing on their own or you reach veterinary care.

Contact your veterinarian or emergency vet clinic immediately. Even if you are able to revive your dog initially, prompt medical attention is crucial. Keep monitoring your dog closely until you can get them to the vet. Time is critical for dogs in respiratory distress.

For more information see:
First Aid for Dogs – Shock, Rescue Breathing, and CPR

Diagnosing the Underlying Cause

If your dog is having breathing difficulties, the veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam and take a full medical history to try to pinpoint the cause. They will listen to your dog’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope to check for any abnormalities. Some diagnostic tests the vet may recommend include:

Chest X-rays – To look for fluid in or around the lungs, pneumonia, cancer, heart disorders, or enlarged organs pressing on the airways. X-rays can also show if the trachea is collapsed. According to the PetMD article on heavy breathing in dogs, X-rays are one of the most common diagnostic tools vets use.

Blood tests – To check for infections, anemia, dehydration, diabetes, kidney issues, or other systemic conditions. Blood oxygen levels may also be assessed.

Arterial blood gas analysis – Measures oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. This helps determine how well the lungs are oxygenating.

Endoscopy – Uses a tiny camera on a flexible tube to view the airways and lungs from the inside. This allows the vet to identify masses, foreign objects, infections, or anatomical defects that may be obstructing breathing.

Ultrasound – Provides visual images of the heart and surrounding structures to identify heart disease or fluid around the lungs. Ultrasound can also be used to examine the trachea.

The results of the exam and diagnostic testing will allow the veterinarian to pinpoint the underlying cause of your dog’s breathing difficulties and recommend appropriate treatment.

Treatment Options

The treatment for breathing difficulties in dogs depends on the underlying cause. Some common treatment options include:

Oxygen therapy – Providing supplemental oxygen through a mask or oxygen cage can help dogs who are struggling to breathe or have low oxygen levels. This stabilizes the dog while addressing the primary problem.

Medications – Drugs like bronchodilators open up airways while corticosteroids reduce inflammation. Antibiotics treat infections. Diuretics remove excess fluid from the lungs. Specific medications target heart disease or other conditions.

Surgery – Surgery may be done to remove obstructions in the airways, extract fluid from around the lungs, or repair issues like a collapsed trachea. Mass removals or foreign object extractions can also help open airways.

In emergencies, the first priority is stabilizing the dog and restoring normal breathing. Then diagnostics are done to determine the cause and guide longer-term treatment. Depending on the underlying condition, a combination of therapies may be used to help the dog breathe more easily.


Managing at Home

Caring for a dog with breathing issues at home requires making adjustments to their rest, diet, and medication routine. According to the article Dog Breathing Problems: We Explore Some Causes and Home Remedies, some tips for managing your dog’s breathing issues at home include:

Rest: Allow your dog to rest in a comfortable, quiet area. Elevate their upper body slightly with pillows to make breathing easier. Avoid overexertion.

Medications: Administer any prescribed medications for your dog’s condition as directed by your veterinarian. Monitor for side effects. An antihistamine like Benadryl may help with allergies or inflammation.

Diet Changes: Feed small, frequent meals instead of large ones to decrease abdominal pressure. Avoid foods that trigger allergies. Add omega fatty acids to reduce inflammation.

With adjustments to their routine at home and proper treatment, you can help your dog manage their breathing problems and improve their comfort.

Making Lifestyle Changes

There are some lifestyle changes you can make at home to help reduce breathing difficulties for dogs. These include managing your dog’s weight, adjusting their exercise routine, and reducing allergens in their environment.

Being overweight can put extra strain on a dog’s respiratory system. Consult with your veterinarian to determine a healthy target weight for your dog. Then, adjust their diet and exercise accordingly to help them slim down. You may need to cut back on treats and table scraps.[1]

Moderate daily exercise can improve respiratory function, but strenuous activity should be avoided. Go for multiple short, gentle walks instead of long hikes or intense games of fetch. Swimming and hydrotherapy are lower-impact options as well. Follow your vet’s guidance on safe exercise limits.[2]

Reducing allergens and irritants in your home can help minimize asthma flare-ups and breathing episodes. Use air filters and vacuum frequently to control dust, dander, and pollen. Also wash bedding regularly in hot water. Avoid using perfumes, air fresheners, or harsh cleaning chemicals that could irritate your dog’s respiratory tract.[3]

Monitoring Breathing Issues

It is important to closely monitor your dog’s breathing issues and track any changes or worsening of symptoms. This allows you to respond promptly if your dog needs emergency care.

Keep a log of your dog’s respiratory rate and effort. Count their breaths per minute while they are relaxed and sleeping. A normal resting respiratory rate is 15-30 breaths per minute in dogs. However, the normal rate may be different for dogs with chronic breathing issues. Notice any increased rate or effort compared to your dog’s baseline.

Watch for signs of labored breathing, such as open-mouth breathing, abdominal breathing, wheezing, grunting, or pale gums. Also note any coughing episodes. Try to determine if there are triggers causing worsening symptoms, such as overexertion, stress, hot weather, or allergens (VCAA).

Keep your veterinarian updated on any changes. They may adjust medications if symptoms worsen. Watch your dog closely after starting new medications as well. Some dogs may need supplemental oxygen at home if they have severe breathing difficulty.

In an emergency, rush your dog to the vet if they are struggling intensely to breathe or appear extremely weak and lethargic. Acute respiratory distress requires rapid veterinary treatment.

When to Seek Emergency Care

If your dog is showing signs of severe or prolonged respiratory distress, it is crucial to seek emergency veterinary care right away. Some signs that warrant an immediate emergency vet visit include:

  • Labored breathing or gasping for air persisting more than 30 minutes (1)
  • Collapsing or loss of consciousness (2)
  • Gums or tongue turning blue or pale (3)
  • Inability to stand or extreme lethargy
  • Coughing up blood

Rapid breathing for more than a few minutes can quickly turn into respiratory distress. Dogs in severe distress may be unable to get enough oxygen, which can damage their organs and brain. Their gums may turn blue or pale from lack of oxygen. Collapse indicates their body is shutting down from oxygen deprivation.

These signs mean your dog needs oxygen therapy and treatment right away. Even a few minutes without oxygen can be damaging. Call your emergency vet to let them know you are on your way, as every minute counts in this situation. With rapid treatment, many dogs recover fully after distress episodes when the underlying condition is addressed. But waiting too long can lead to permanent damage or death.




Caring Long-Term for Dogs with Breathing Issues

Living with a dog with chronic breathing problems can be difficult, but with close management your dog can continue to have a good quality of life for some time. Work closely with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan and monitor your dog’s condition. This may involve long-term use of medications like bronchodilators, antibiotics, and steroids to help open airways and reduce inflammation.

You’ll likely need to make some adjustments to your dog’s lifestyle to accommodate their reduced lung capacity. Limit intense or prolonged physical activity that could trigger breathing distress. Keep your home at a comfortable temperature and use air filtration and humidifiers if needed. Avoid exposing your dog to dust, smoke, and other lung irritants. Consider investing in a harness for walks instead of a collar that puts pressure on the airway.

Your vet may recommend a prescription diet or supplements that can help support respiratory health. Even subtle changes like elevating your dog’s food and water bowls can make eating and drinking easier. Work closely with your vet to find customized solutions to make breathing easier for your pup.

While managing a chronic illness is difficult, taking diligent care of your dog and responding quickly when problems arise can help them continue to enjoy life for some time. Stay in close contact with your vet and keep up with all prescribed treatments. With a loving home and proper care, dogs with breathing issues can still have many good years.

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