Dogs have been beloved companions to humans for centuries. Many of us consider them family and we pamper them and treat them as such. It can be distressful for us to see our dogs in pain or discomfort, but sometimes it is difficult to know what to do. This article looks at some symptoms and causes of respiratory problems as well as tips for your dog’s visit to the clinic.
How do you know if your dog has a respiratory problem?
Respiratory symptoms in dogs are issues that affect the chest, lungs, throat, and nose. Sometimes these symptoms can overlap with gastrointestinal symptoms which primarily affect the stomach and intestines. Some of the more common respiratory symptoms you might see are:
- Coughing: A force of air trying to expel something from the lungs or trachea (windpipe); may sound short and sharp or it may sound like a nasally honk.
- Wheezing: A raspy, crackly, or squeaky noise created when the airway is partially blocked, which may be due to mucus, inflammation, or a foreign object.
- Gagging: May sound wet or dry, an attempt to clear something from the back of the throat.
- Dry heaving: Sometimes sounds like coughing or gagging, but no vomit is produced.
- Reverse sneezing: Sometimes mistaken for coughing, usually caused by a mild irritant in the back of nasal passages that will resolve in minutes without treatment
What causes respiratory problems in dogs?
Many underlying causes can show up as respiratory symptoms in dogs. Some are very mild and will resolve in a few minutes with no treatment. Other causes are more urgent but easily treatable. More serious cases may require surgery or other aggressive treatment.
Lower/Upper respiratory infections
There is a long list of potential lower or upper respiratory infections that can cause respiratory symptoms. Here are a few examples:
- Viruses: Kennel cough for example is highly contagious. Like a cold virus in humans, it will usually run its course in a few days. It is a bigger concern in very young and immunocompromised dogs. Vaccines are available to prevent it.
- Bacteria: Bronchitis for example is often caused by bacteria and is usually treatable with antibiotics.
- Fungi: Pneumocystis for example is more of a concern for immunocompromised pets and is treatable with antifungal medications.
- Parasites: Heartworm for example is a parasitic infection, transmitted by mosquitos, whereby adult worms live inside the heart chambers and can cause coughing. This is treatable with antiparasitic medications. Preventative medication is recommended.
There are many objects, large and small, that can become lodged in your dog’s nasal cavity, trachea, or lungs.
- Natural objects like dust or pollen: Usually this is something small enough that will become trapped in the mucus that lines the respiratory tract and can be expelled without treatment. Some grass seeds, like foxtail, have tiny barbs that make it very difficult for a dog to dislodge it naturally by coughing and it can cause significant damage to the soft tissue of the respiratory tract.
- Food: Food can become lodged in the larynx or trachea and cause coughing, wheezing, or gagging.
- Toys: You and your dog may not always agree on what is an appropriate chew toy, but anything your dog chews on, whole or in part, can find its way into the respiratory tract.
Many items around our homes and yards can be irritating or toxic to our canine companions.
- Rat poison: This is a common product used to keep rodent populations under control. It is meant to be tasty to rodents, but if dogs find it, they may eat it as well. It causes internal bleeding and possibly coughing, among other symptoms.
- Aerosols: Household cleaners and grooming products are the most common aerosols that your dog may be exposed to.
- Smoke: Fireplaces, barbecue pits, and cigarette smoke are all potentially dangerous to your pet. Besides the smoke itself, ash can be an irritant also.
A multitude of illnesses may cause respiratory symptoms in your dog. Here are just a few:
- Heart Disease: Congestive heart failure can cause coughing and wheezing symptoms.
- Allergies: Grass and food allergies are common in dogs and can show up as respiratory symptoms.
- Collapsed trachea: More often seen in smaller breeds, the cartilage in the trachea can break down and obstruct the airway.
- Laryngeal paralysis: This is a disease of nerve tissue that causes dysfunction in the throat.
- Cancer: Abnormal growth of tissue anywhere in the respiratory tract can cause a physical obstruction.
As you can see, respiratory symptoms can be a difficult issue to diagnose because there are so many potential causes. Symptoms can be further complicated by age, chronic illnesses, and obesity.
How can I help my dog with respiratory problems?
Ideally, a dog should have regular veterinary visits to monitor his health and get the vaccines that are recommended to treat diseases in dogs. If your dog is experiencing any respiratory distress or exhibiting unusual symptoms, it may be time for an urgent visit to the clinic.
In addition to respiratory symptoms, if you notice any of the following symptoms, please consult a veterinarian immediately:
- Lethargy: If your dog isn’t interested in playing or going outside, as usual, it could be a sign of low oxygenation.
- Swelling: If your dog’s face or muzzle is swollen, this could be an allergic reaction and may include swelling in the throat.
- Discolored gums: Gently pull up your dog’s lip. Normally the tissue will be bright pink. If it is white, very pale, gray, or purple, this could be a sign of poor circulation or poor oxygenation.
- Bleeding: If you notice bleeding around the eyes, nose, ears, or mouth, this could be a sign of toxicity from rat poison.
Any information that you can provide to your veterinarian can be helpful, but be prepared with the following details:
- When did the symptoms start?
- Is your dog getting better or worse?
- Could your dog have been exposed to toxins such as rat poison?
- Is your dog experiencing other symptoms? This may include:
- Unusual behaviors
- Drinking water and urinating excessively
- Avoiding food and water
If you can record a short video of your dog exhibiting symptoms of coughing, wheezing, or gagging, that could prove invaluable to the treatment of your pet.
Be aware that your veterinarian will need to perform an exam and will likely need to perform tests to make a diagnosis. These tests could include:
- X-rays: May show obstructions.
- Bloodwork: May help determine toxicity or infection.
- Fecal exam: May show parasitic infection or internal bleeding.
- Urinalysis: May show toxicity.
- Ecg: May show abnormalities in the heart.
- Echocardiogram: Another method of looking at heart function.
Monitor respiratory issues closely because they can be fatal if ignored. If you have any doubt about the health of your canine companion, consult your veterinarian, and your dog will reward you for years to come with exuberant greetings, wet kisses, and of course, loyalty.