What should I do if my dog has breathing problems?

Breathing problems in dogs can quickly become life-threatening so if your dog is suffering respiratory distress you should call your vet, or out of hours your nearest Vets Now, as quickly as possible.

Dog respiratory system

A dog’s respiratory system is complex and contains several parts, including the lungs, windpipe (trachea), throat, nose and mouth. Diseases in any part of this system can cause breathing problems in dogs.

Difficulty or laboured breathing is known as dyspnoea, and excessively fast breathing is called tachypnea.

Breathing problems can occur in any breed or age, but they are particularly common in flat-faced breeds with narrowed nostrils and elongated soft palates, such as French bulldogs and pugs, and some toy breeds, including Yorkshire Terriers and Chihuahuas, as they are most likely to suffer from windpipe issues.

How to tell if your dog has breathing problems

It can be difficult to determine whether your dog is breathing normally or not. Healthy dogs typically breath at a rate of between 20 and 34 breaths a minute and their breathing should never be laboured or a struggle. Rapid breathing in dogs may simply be down to excitement or exercise. Dogs may also pant when they’re in fear, stressed or hot. Panting is one of the most important ways a dog thermoregulates.

But beware, heavy or rapid breathing is an early sign of heat stroke and should be closely monitored. If you’re worried your dog has heat stroke please read our advice article here.

Recognising abnormal breathing

Your dog may drool more than normal and look like they’re choking or in distress. They may also make loud noises such as snorting or rasping.

Another common sign of abnormal breathing is when your dog is breathing heavily or panting but isn’t warm and hasn’t been exercising. This should be of particular concern if their mouth is drawn very wide (like a ‘grin’) and/or you can see their nostrils moving.

Dogs with breathing difficulties will also sometimes stand or lie with their neck stretched out and elbows side apart — and they may become distressed if you try to interact with them. Check to see if their sides and tummy are moving in and out more noticeably and/or faster than usual and pay particular attention to their tongue and gums. If they’re an unusual colour, particularly if there is a blue or blue-purple tinge, contact your vet straight away.

Image of dog panting for Vets Now article on dog breathing fast and shallow
Difficulty or laboured breathing in dogs is known as dyspnoea, while excessively fast breathing is called tachypnea

Dog laboured breathing causes

Laboured breathing or shortness of breath, often called dyspnea, may prevent your dog getting enough oxygen into their bloodstream and is a life-threatening emergency.

The causes of laboured breathing in dogs are varied. One of the most common in older pets is fluid in the lungs or chest cavity. This is often associated with heart disease and lung disease. Other less common causes of dyspnea in dogs are foreign objects, lung cancer, infections such as pneumonia, injuries to the chest wall, kennel cough and allergies. Other diseases of the nose, throat, windpipe, lungs and the diaphragm may also be to blame. Breathing abnormally can also be a symptom of other serious underlying issues such as pain or metabolic diseases.

Dog breathing fast causes

When dogs are breathing unusually fast, they are said to be suffering from tachypnea, but rapid breathing in dogs may not necessarily be a sign of distress. If your dog is breathing fast and shallow and their mouth is wide open and their tongue hanging out, they may simply be panting to keep cool. But if your dog is breathing heavily and faster than circumstances warrant — with their mouth closed, or only partially open — it could be a sign of something more serious.

Causes of tachypnea in dogs include lower-respiratory issues such as bronchitis or fluid on the lungs and non-respiratory issues such as anaemia, heart disease and bloat. In some cases, tachypnea is also brought on by the likes of stress, fear, heat or fever. It’s worth bearing in mind that tachypnea may progress to dyspnea so it should never be ignored.

Puppy rapid breathing

Young dogs are at an increased risk of developing respiratory disease. This is mainly because their respiratory and immune systems aren’t fully developed, meaning they’re more likely to suffer fluid on the lungs. If you’re in any doubt about your puppy’s breathing, you should seek veterinary attention as quickly as possible.

Treatment for breathing problems in dogs

Your vet will ask you about your dog’s health, the onset of signs, and any possible incidents that may have caused them to have breathing difficulties. During the examination, your vet will observe how your dog breathes and will listen to their chest for evidence of a heart murmur or fluid in the lungs.

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

If your dog is having real difficulty breathing, the vet or vet nurse may give them oxygen to help them. In most cases, a blood test will also be required to check for underlying conditions. The vet may also perform an x-ray or ultrasound to examine the lungs and heart.

Treatment will depend on nature of the symptoms and any diagnosis your vet makes for your dog’s breathing problems. Most cases will require hospital admittance until your dog’s breathing has significantly improved.