Understanding and Treating Breathing Problems in Dogs

Hudson's paralyzed larynx is a treatable respiratory problem. Here are several more.

Kelly Pulley  |  Dec 12th 2012

Sometimes my dog Hudson can’t breathe. His tongue turns blue and he makes the situation worse with his hyperventilating, which is caused by his anxiety at not being able to breathe. It’s a vicious circle and can be terrifying to see.

The worst thing? I can’t do much during these episodes. I get anxious myself, adding to the atmosphere of fear. I’ve tried to coddle him, and I’ve just helplessly watched. Once I blew air into his nostrils, but that just sent him into a deeper spiral. It’s an exasperating thing.

You might think that Hudson is a Bulldog or a Pug, with a pushed-in snout that makes breathing more difficult. But he isn’t — he’s a Pit Bull with a Lab-like muzzle. Hudson, however, has a paralyzed larynx, and this causes his breathing issues.

Dogs of any age, breed, or mix can have breathing problems (also known as dyspnea). Watching your dog fight for breath is one of the more frightening things you can witness. It can make you feel as if you are watching your dog’s life slowly ebb away. Luckily, there are ways to manage and treat breathing problems, which will make your dog more comfortable and give you some peace of mind.

If you notice your dog’s breathing is labored or noisy, it could be a result of many factors, including allergies, pneumonia, and structural congenital defects. It’s easy to suddenly see symptoms in your dog that aren’t really there, so take notes when and where your dog starts gasping for breath, note any other symptoms and how long they continue, and then consult your vet.

Here are some of the causes of breathing difficulties in dogs:

1. Allergies

The National Institutes of Health released studies that show that if you have pets as a child, you tend to have fewer allergies later in life. But we rarely think about the fact that our dogs may be allergic to us. Allergies are the number one cause of breathing problems in dogs, according to Dr. Jonathan Leshanski of At Home Vet in New York City.

If your dog has trouble breathing, you might want to stop using perfume (including perfumed lotions), scented cleaning products, incense, air fresheners, and bleach.

2. Illness

Here are some illnesses that result in breathing problems:

Heart disease: This is the second most common cause of canine breathing trouble, according to Dr. Leshanski. Ask your vet to perform a test to detect a heart murmur. Other symptoms of heart disease include behavioral changes and lack of appetite.

Parainfluenza: Yes, dogs can get the flu, though it’s a different type than the human variety. Other symptoms include a dry cough and sneezing.

Kennel cough: If you board your dog, you have to get your dog vaccinated beforehand. Symptoms include lethargy and disinterest in food.

Aspiration pneumonia: This is most likely to occur after surgery, especially after surgery for a paralyzed larynx or enlarged esophagus, and it can be deadly.

3. Medical disorders

Laryngeal paralysis is a complicated disorder that is most common in Labs and Lab mixes. A part of the larynx becomes paralyzed and presses on the trachea. It becomes worse with excitement or anxiety.

Megaesophagus, or enlarged esophagus, is another disorder that can cause breathing trouble. It is usually hereditary.

4. Congenital defects

In brachycephalic breeds with “pushed-in” snouts, it can be tough for the dog to take in enough air. The most common causes of these breathing issues are “stenotic nares” (not enough opening in the nose) and overlong soft palate, which hangs over part of the larynx.

The more extreme the flatness of the muzzle, the more likely the dog is to have trouble breathing. These breeds include the English Bulldog, the Pug, the French Bulldog, the Boxer, the Pekingese, and the Boston Terrier.

How to manage and treat breathing problems in dogs

Your vet should determine the underlying cause and treat that first. This is especially true for illnesses such as heart disease. Surgery may be an option if your dog has a congenital defect or a medical disorder. If your vet recommends it, make sure it is only “to give an animal a much better quality of life; it’s all about quality,” according to Dr. Leshanski.

But what if surgery isn’t a good option for your dog?

Get rid of any possible triggers in your home and keep your dog as calm as possible. This may mean limiting or stopping walks, and keeping things quiet. For some dogs, excess stomach acid can trigger or worsen a breathing episode, so feed your dog a bland diet and check with your vet about giving him an acid reducer.

What do to during an extreme breathing episode

First, stay calm. Check your dog’s airway for an obstruction first, then, if the episode lasts more than a few minutes, lay him on his side and perform CPR (you can learn it from your vet). Above all, take him to your vet as soon as possible.

If your dog’s symptoms are severe enough that his tongue or lips turn blue, he urgently needs oxygen, and even taking him to an emergency vet may be too late. You may want to rent an oxygen tank and buy a special mask for dogs, which your vet can prescribe. It may seem extreme, but having these on hand may make your dog more comfortable, and even save your dog’s life.

My personal experience with Hudson

Hudson just got his own personal oxygen tank. I didn’t make this decision lightly; at $75-a-month rental, plus special dog oxygen masks at around $20, it’s a money crunch. But Hudson is 13 in January, too old (in my opinion) for potentially dangerous surgery.

The oxygen is helping. When Hudson’s breathing is labored or his tongue looks bluish, I put the mask on his grizzled muzzle (he doesn’t really mind it), turn it on, and hold it there for a few seconds. It’s very simple and, thus far, not needed often.

Keeping an oxygen tank for my dog may be hard to explain to non-dog friends, but if it makes life a bit easier for Hudson and a bit less worrisome for me, it’s worth it.

Does your dog have a breathing problem? How do you handle it? Let us know in the comments!