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Dog Breathing Heavy? Here’s What to Do! (Our Vet Answers)

From personal experience, you will know that breathing can vary enormously depending on circumstances or situations. It can get faster or slower, and shallower or deeper. While this is a very natural variation and is usually completely healthy, it can also reflect problems developing for your pet. The challenge for us is to tell the difference between normal and abnormal changes, and this will guide our next steps as to what to do.

When should I be worried that my dog is breathing fast or heavy?

The best question to ask yourself is whether the breathing change is appropriate or not in the circumstances. Compare this to yourself and whether you would usually expect to be breathing differently in this situation. If the answer is that the breathing is not appropriate, then this is potentially a reason to worry. Don’t panic though, an awful lot of things can affect breathing and so they aren’t all terrible news.

dog breathing heavily
Image Credit: Pixabay

It is important to look at all the signs:

Signs Your Dog is Breathing Fast or Heavy
  • How fast is your dog breathing? It is worthwhile counting your dog’s breathing rate if you can. One breath is a full inhale and then a full exhale- don’t count both by accident! A normal rate would be 15-30 breaths per minute when dogs are healthy, resting and relaxed or asleep. Breathing is naturally slower when dogs are relaxed or asleep, and naturally faster when up and awake and active.
  • Is your dog struggling to breathe properly at all? You should be concerned if your dog is inappropriately panting heavily with an open mouth, especially with the corners of the lips pulled back. Dogs in distress may also be stretching out their body and neck to try and pull more air in. This labored breathing with increased effort is a cause for concern and needs investigation.
  • Is your dog making any abnormal breathing noises like wheezes or gasps that they don’t normally make?
  • There may also be other clues or symptoms that your dog is showing at the same time, which may be further cause for concern.

Why is my dog breathing fast or heavy?

Breathing changes are a reaction to a wide variety of factors, both physical and emotional. Some of these can reflect internal problems, but many of them are completely normal adaptations the body makes to a particular set of circumstances.

Physical Effort, Heat, Pregnancy and Fear are all normal!

Normal reasons for breathing fast or heavy include physical effort (running around, playing) where breathing gets faster to take in more oxygen. If your dog is frightened or anxious, then breathing rate will also increase for the same reason. This can also be seen after a fit or seizure, reflecting emotional distress. If your dog is hot, they will also pant normally. Pregnant dogs normally tend to have more labored breathing as there is often a lot of weight pressing against their chest in the form of puppies!

Pregnant Finnish Hound
Image Credit: Rita Romanyshyn, Shutterstock

Pain

One common abnormal reason for this is pain of any cause. Internal diseases like heart, kidney and liver problems can also trigger this if they cause pain or if they drive changes to the chemistry of the blood. Changing the breathing rate is the body trying to adapt to these chemistry changes. Breathing changes in older dogs are often clues that something is changing inside.

Oxygen deprivation

Breathing will also change if the body is struggling to get oxygen into the blood and on to the organs. This can happen with lung and heart problems, or if something is obstructing the airways or lungs and reducing the ability to breathe properly. Blood loss and anemia can also cause breathing changes, as the body doesn’t have enough blood to carry oxygen around the body.

My dog is breathing heavy, what should I do?

Steps to Take if Your Dog is Breathing Heavy
  1. Ask yourself whether this breathing is to be expected. If your dog is active, hot or anxious, for example, then a faster rate may be entirely reasonable. If there is no obvious reason for the breathing rate to be higher than normal, then this may be a cause for concern.
  2. Count your dog’s breathing rate and look for any other obvious symptoms your dog may be showing (coughing, hunched, off food, vomiting, and diarrhea for example).
  3. If the breathing rate is fast without good reason, and especially if your dog is showing other symptoms, it is important to make contact with your local veterinary clinic as soon as possible. A professional opinion is needed to help guide decision making from here on.
    • If your dog is really struggling to breathe at all and is showing signs like gasping or choking, then this is an emergency, and you should see your veterinarian as soon as possible. This is referred to as respiratory distress, difficulty breathing, or ‘dyspnea’.
    • If the symptoms are mild, then a routine appointment may be more appropriate. This is referred to as increased respiratory rate, fast breathing, or ‘tachypnea’.
  4. Your veterinarian will ask for the current situation and for the background to this problem. Based on this they will be able to give you advice. In general, veterinarians will advise a check over in person for a physical examination in the first instance, as dogs can go downhill quickly with some of the conditions that cause heavy breathing.
  5. Follow your veterinarian’s advice. If this is to bring in your dog for a check over then it is best to follow this advice. Your veterinarian will be acting with your dog’s best interests at heart. If finances are a concern, you should make this clear to your veterinarian- they will be sure to keep you up to date with expected costs.

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How will my veterinarian investigate heavy breathing and respiratory distress in dogs?

Your vet will first ask detailed questions about the background and symptoms of this problem. They will then perform a full clinical examination of your dog to look for external clues. This initial stage is very important to narrow down the long list of potential causes of changes in breathing and allow you and your veterinarian to focus on the more likely possibilities for your dog. This first step may be done as a normal consultation or it may be conducted in a faster and more efficient manner if the situation is an emergency.

Initial Stabilization

In an emergency setting, your dog may require initial stabilization before further work can be performed. If your dog is unable to breathe or oxygenate the blood normally, then this is potentially life-threatening and these problems need to be corrected as a top priority. This can be achieved through giving oxygen or intubation (placing a tube into your dog’s airway to open and secure it and provide oxygen). Your vet may also give drugs to calm your dog, as stress will be adding to their difficulties.

In rare circumstances, especially in choking situations, emergency intubation may be required by a tracheostomy, where your veterinarian will need to make a hole in your dog’s throat and place a tube that way (just as in the movies but not with a ballpoint pen!).

vet
Image Credit: jaminriverside, Pixabay

Testing and Diagnosis

To reach a conclusive diagnosis, your veterinarian may then recommend further investigations including blood tests (to check for internal disease and changes in blood chemistry). Imaging may also be advised, including things like chest X-rays (or a chest CT scan) to assess the health of your dog’s heart and lungs. If pain is suspected as a cause, your veterinarian will look for common causes such as tummy pain or orthopedic pain (arthritis, for example), and there may be specific tests advised for these to narrow down the issue.

Depending on the exact cause, many of these problems are entirely treatable and carry a good long-term prognosis. Unfortunately, some causes of changes in breathing are sinister and may not be treatable. As with all things, the sooner professional help is sought, the better your dog’s chances are likely to be.

What can I give my dog for breathing problems? Are there any home remedies to breathe better?

This is a good example of a situation where it really is better to seek professional advice in the first instance. There may well be home remedies that would suit your dog, but a proper diagnosis is needed first to guide this and to ensure there is no immediate risk to your dog. In addition, there are so many different things that can affect breathing that you are likely to miss the target at home. Home remedies are also at risk of making conditions affecting the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver much worse. Typical human interventions and medicines for breathing problems are not appropriate for dogs in most cases.

If your dog is breathing abnormally, the best advice at home is to keep your dog as cool, calm, and relaxed as you possibly can. It is worth drawing curtains to darken the space, reducing noise, and using fans or air conditioning to provide gentle cool air movement. This will help while you assess the situation as described above and seek professional veterinary advice.

If your vet isn’t immediately worried about your dog’s condition, they will provide you with home care advice that you can follow.

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FAQs

What are the signs of respiratory distress in a dog?

Look for heavy and fast breathing that is inappropriate given the circumstances. Dogs may also stretch out the head or neck, have wide and fearful eyes and be making unusual noises like gasping or wheezing. Breathing faster than 30 breaths per minute is too fast if a dog isn’t- or hasn’t recently been- exercising.

How do I know if a dog has fluid in his lungs?

Fluid on the lungs is one potential cause of rapid breathing and it prevents the lungs from doing their job as they cannot fully expand and get oxygen in. This would cause the symptoms of respiratory distress above, but it requires professional veterinary examination and chest X-rays to properly diagnose for certain.

Why does my dog sound like he can’t breathe?

There are lots of potential causes of this, ranging from problems or obstructions affecting the airways through to heart, lung, liver and kidney problems. If you feel your dog cannot breathe, it is important to seek emergency veterinary advice.

How can I give my dog more oxygen?

This is very difficult to achieve at home, as most homes will not have access to medical oxygen. The simplest way is to pass the oxygen under your dog’s nose. However, in these circumstances, your dog definitely needs emergency veterinary attention, and the veterinary clinic can provide oxygen under the nose, via mask or by intubation if required. In mild cases, providing fresh, cool airflow through the room is enough to ensure your dog is breathing the right stuff.

Is rapid breathing a sign of pain in dogs?

Rapid breathing can be a sign of pain and may be accompanied by other symptoms. However, there are other causes of rapid breathing, and it’s best to let your vet decide which is affecting your dog.

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Conclusion

Breathing is naturally a highly variable body process and changes to reflect the demands of the current situation on your dog. It can also change rapidly with disease processes and pain, and unfortunately there are a great number of possible causes of heavy breathing in dogs. If you suspect your dog is breathing abnormally and inappropriately for the circumstances, it is best to seek professional veterinary advice sooner rather than later- this is not something to try and manage at home.

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Featured Image Credit: Pixabay