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Wheezing, Heaving, and Choking, Oh My!

Common Causes of Respiratory Distress in Dogs in Cats

There are few more unnerving scenarios than finding our dog or cat struggling to breathe. Depending on our pet’s species, breed, age, and medical history, we can often prevent sudden distress, or at least prepare to act fast.

Respiratory distress can originate from either the upper or lower airways, or both. The upper segment includes the nostrils (nares), nasal passages, sinuses, nasopharynx and larynx (voice box). The lower airways include the windpipe (trachea), and branching bronchi, bronchioli and air sacs in the lungs. The vital function of the respiratory system is to bring oxygen to the bloodstream in exchange for carbon dioxide. A compromise anywhere along the way can have dire consequences. But how can you tell if your pet is in danger?

Signs of Respiratory Distress

Labored or rapid shallow breathing, coughing or gagging, a blueish tongue and gums, lethargy,  reluctance to eat or drink, and collapse all mean trouble. Partial upper airway obstructions may cause abnormal sounds on inspiration. A low head with extended neck can also indicate distress. Any cat who is open-mouth breathing should be evaluated right away, because cats do not normally pant! This can be a sign of extreme stress, overheating, or respiratory distress.

Causes of Respiratory Distress in Cats

Top causes of respiratory distress in cats include asthma, heart failure (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), and pleural effusion. Asthma can be triggered by pollen, dust, and smoke. Heart disease can lead to fluid build-up in and around the lungs. Pleural effusion refers to fluid between the lungs and chest wall. This breaks the seal and restricts lung expansion. Fluid can result from viral, fungal, parasitic or bacterial infections, cancers, heart disease, trauma, or other causes. Note that these are lower airway diseases, but cats can also get upper airway tumors, polyps, infections and foreign body obstructions.

Prevention of Respiratory Distress in Cats

Cats have evolved to hide signs of illness. We often discover a problem after it has advanced to an emergency situation. Talk to your veterinarian about vaccinations and heartworm prophylaxis. Be mindful of excessive pollen and dust, and never smoke around your cat. The first time you see your cat pant or wheeze, seek veterinary attention. Asthma and heart disease can both be managed with medications to reduce the risk of sudden respiratory distress.

Causes of Respiratory Distress in Dogs

Respiratory distress in dogs can be due to a foreign body (choking), laryngeal paralysis, brachycephalic airway syndrome, acute allergic reactions, congestive heart failure, infections, cancers, and heat stroke. Dogs who chew sticks, certain toys, rawhides, bones, and some people foods may suddenly choke and collapse. There is always a risk with putting your hands in a dog’s mouth, so exercise caution and try to remove the object. The risks include getting bitten but also pushing the object further down the airway.

Laryngeal paralysis is another cause of respiratory distress in dogs. Certain breeds, such golden and Labrador retrievers, are predisposed to this condition. This can lead to upper airway obstruction and heatstroke, as the dog cannot cool properly. This is another emergency requiring immediate veterinary care.

Brachycephalic airway syndrome can lead to difficulty breathing as well. Anatomic abnormalities may include stenotic nares (small nostrils), elongated soft palate, everted laryngeal saccules, and a narrow windpipe. Susceptible dogs are the “short-faced” breeds such as pugs, bulldogs and Boston terriers. Surgery may correct some of these defects, but these dogs are prone to respiratory distress and heat stroke with mild exercise, stress, obesity or overheating.

Collapsing trachea, most common in toy breeds, is a defect of the windpipe. Stress, exercise, obesity, and coughing can trigger the defective C-shaped cartilage rings to collapse. Mild cases may be managed medically, while surgery may be required for more severe cases. Yorkshire terriers, toy poodles, and chihuahuas are examples of susceptible breeds.

Prevention of Respiratory Distress in Dogs

Talk to your veterinarian about vaccinating your dog for kennel cough and influenza in addition to the core vaccines. Choose chew toys mindfully, avoiding ones that can break apart into chunks. Brachycephalic breeds can have corrective surgery, and dogs with laryngeal paralysis and collapsing trachea may also be surgical candidates. Annual exams can help diagnose heart disease and other problems that can be managed medically. Obesity is a risk factor in both dogs and cats, so keeping them trim can help. And of course, never leave your pet in a vehicle on a warm or sunny day.

Respiratory distress can be terrifying for both pet and owner. It’s important to have a plan for getting immediate veterinary assistance if needed. Knowing the signs, your own pet’s risk factors, and how to prevent common respiratory emergencies can help both you and your pet breathe easy.