Breathing problems & difficulties in dogs

Breathing problems in dogs can occur in any breed or age, and the problem can quickly become life-threatening. If your dog is having problems breathing, this can be a life-threatening emergency and it is important to have your dog seen by a vet as soon as possible.

Difficulty or laboured breathing is known as dyspnoea and excessively fast breathing is called tachypnea, if your pet is suffering from either of these symptoms, contact your nearest emergency vet immediately.


What signs should I look for?

If your dog is having difficulty breathing, you may see the following:

  1. The belly moving as well as the chest moving with each breath
  2. Nostrils flaring open
  3. Breathing with an open mouth or excessive panting
  4. Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body
  5. Neck and head held low and extended out in front of the body
  6. Noisy breathing (stridor)
  7. Rapid breathing
  8. Shallow breaths
  9. Coughing
image of a sad dog laying on a dog bed for a Vets Now article on dogs being sick

What can cause breathing problems in dogs?

There are many different reasons your dog may be struggling to breathe, including:

  1. Infection (bacterial, viral, parasitic)
  2. Trauma
  3. Bleeding
  4. Foreign objects
  5. Structural abnormality (such as elongated soft palate, common in flat-faced breeds)
  6. Heart failure
  7. Anaemia
  8. Allergies
  9. Pain
  10. Fever
  11. Diseases that make the belly enlarged or bloated (such as enlarged liver, stomach filled with air (bloat) or fluid in the belly)
  12. Medications
  13. Tumours
What to do if your dog is having breathing problems


Your vet will ask you about your dog’s health, the onset of signs, and possible incidents that might have preceded this condition. During the examination, your vet will carefully observe how your dog breathes and will listen to his chest for evidence of a heart murmur or fluid in the lungs.

Your dog’s gum colour will be evaluated, as this can indicate whether oxygen is being delivered to the organs effectively, or if it there is a low red blood cell count (anaemia).  Your vet may try to get your dog to cough by pressing on its windpipe.

If your dog is having extreme difficulty breathing, the vet or nurse may take your dog straight out to the back area to enable them to give your dog oxygen to help him breathe and settle down before doing any more examinations or tests.

Most cases will require blood tests to check for underlying disease conditions and x-rays or ultrasound to examine the lungs and heart.

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How to treat breathing problems in dogs

Treatment will depend on the diagnosis your vet makes for your dog’s breathing problems. Most breathing problems require admittance into the hospital until your dog’s breathing has significantly improved.