Can a Dog Attack Cause Collapsing Trachea and Long-Term Coughing?

It can be caused by a dog attack, but it can also develop organically in some little dogs.


Dear Dr. Barchas,

My Maltipoo was severely injured in April by the next door neighbor’s Mastiff (he jumped the fence into my yard). He had surgery, and since then he has had a cough, which sounds like he is trying to spit up phlegm. He didn’t do this before being attacked, and I’m told he has a collapsed trachea. Could this have been brought on by the attack?

Thank you,


Yikes! This type of story makes me glad that my neighbors own a French Bulldog who is incapable of hurting a flea. It also makes me glad that my dog (a Labrador Retriever mix) is super-friendly — I would not want to be involved as either party in this sort of “neighborly” interaction.

First let me say that I am glad your dog survived the incident. Altercations between big (or, in this case, massive) dogs and little dogs generally end poorly for the smaller individual. Although there is no excuse for this sort of violence, owners of small dogs should be aware that so-called “big dog-little dog” (BDLD) scenarios are, 1) common enough to have an acronym to describe them, and 2) are more often started by the little dog than the big dog. I cannot count the number of off-leash Chihuahuas that have unsuccessfully attempted suicide by attacking my pal Buster during walks. (In fact, some veterinarians refer to BDLD cases as “suicide attempts.”)

What I’m saying here is that owners of small dogs should be very cautious when much larger individuals are around.

Jean, I am not accusing your dog of starting the fight. I am merely warning other owners of small dogs to exercise due diligence. Owner of small dogs should not let their pets run up to much larger individuals — especially if they run up with a chip on their shoulder. Jean, your dog was in your fenced-in back yard, so this admonition does not apply to you. At the risk of upsetting my more sensitive readers, let’s discuss your scenario further. What follows is pretty graphic.

There are two components to a BDLD incident. First, there is the bite. When a Maltipoo finds itself in the jaws of a Mastiff, massive crushing can lead to bone fractures, major muscle or organ trauma, significant hemorrhage, tracheal injury (more on that in a moment), collapsed lungs, neurological trauma, proptosed eyes, and a host of other traumas.

What is often worse than the bite itself is the thing that comes next: the shake. In most cases, the larger dog will shake the smaller dog once or several times before releasing (if he releases at all). This shaking exacerbates all of the above listed injuries, and can also lead to degloving wounds (in which the skin comes loose from the tissues underneath) and significant internal injuries such as fractured spleens, ruptured bladders, evisceration, and pulmonary contusions.

The types of trauma that can occur in a BDLD scenario are literally limitless. Jean, I am therefore very happy to hear that your dog survived and is, for the most part, doing well. I hope that your relationship with your neighbor also has survived the incident.

If your neighbor’s dog bit your dog on the neck (which is common), injury to the trachea, or windpipe, might have occurred. This could have caused permanent scarring or anatomical changes that could lead to long-term coughing. These anatomical changes might include alterations to the cartilage that holds the trachea open, leading to tracheal collapse.

However, the syndrome called collapsing trachea in small dogs is an organic problem that develops in huge numbers of Maltese, Poodles, Maltipoos, and other small dogs. It occurs when the cartilage that holds the trachea open naturally weakens with age. It also leads to coughing. True organic tracheal collapse isn’t caused by trauma, but it conceivably could be exacerbated by it.

If you wish to get a more definitive answer, X-rays of your dog’s throat may yield some insight into the matter. However, to fully assess the area, your vet might also recommend tracheoscopy — a procedure that involves general anesthesia and special instrumentation. If your dog’s coughing isn’t progressive and isn’t compromising his quality of life, I’m not sure I’d pursue tracheoscopy.

Of course, I hope that the coughing isn’t progressive or compromising your dog’s quality of life — for the sake of your dog and yourself, as well as your neighborhood.

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

1 thought on “Can a Dog Attack Cause Collapsing Trachea and Long-Term Coughing?”

  1. Hi Doctor, my Lab was attacked by an off leash pitbull when she was just two. One of her many injuries was a neck would which led to an infection. Treatment and meds cleared it up, but now at the age of five, she had developed a strong cough when playing ball. Is it possible that the attack has permanent affected her trachea?

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