What Does It Mean if My Dog Is Breathing Fast?

Dr Pippa Elliott
Yorkshire

What do you do if you find that your dog seems to be breathing too fast? Sometimes your dog is simply panting, however, it's important to learn what may be causing this common symptom and whether or not you need to go see the vet.

Is Your Dog Breathing Fast?

Merck Veterinary Manual lists the dog's normal respiratory rate as 18 - 34 breaths per minute at rest. To sort out what's normal and what's not, count your dog's respiratory rate while at rest or asleep. While it's normal to pant after exercise, other signs that point toward abnormal include:

  • Open-mouthed breathing
  • Gums that are pale, brick red, or blue-tinged
  • Drooling
  • Using the tummy muscles to assist breathing
  • Reluctance to eat, drink or move

Regardless of the cause, these are all signs your best buddy needs to see a vet. The vet will examine the dog to work out where the problem lies; such as the head and neck, airway and lungs, heart and circulation, or a general health condition.

Problems With the Head or Throat

These problems often narrow the airway making it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs.

Squish-Faced Breeds

As adorable as pugs, pekes, bulldogs, and Boston terriers are, panting is normal for these flat-faced breeds. The American College of Veterinary Surgeons explains this is due to:

  • Narrow nostrils
  • A long, soft palate
  • An outsized tongue
  • Large tonsils

The canny Pug parent knows what's normal for their dog and is alert for changes such as unusual drooling, refusal to move or blue gums. If your canine pal starts struggling, keep him cool and carry him home. If he isn't wolfing down treats within a few minutes, seek urgent veterinary attention.

Rhinitis

A snotty nose makes it difficult to breathe. However, rather than a head cold, most fur friends suffer from a long term bacterial (or occasionally fungal) infection in the nasal chambers called rhinitis. Rhinitis is more of an inconvenience than it is life-threatening. However, prompt treatment at the first signs of this infection can nip it in the bud and prevent it from dragging on. The first signs of rhinitis are a sniffle and drippy nose. Clues include sneezing or the dog licking his nose more frequently, as he uses his tongue as a handkerchief.

Windpipe (Trachea) Problems

Just as standing on a hose stops water flowing, anything that squashes the windpipe (trachea) makes it difficult to breathe. A simple example is a dog that pulls on his collar, half-choking himself. In this case, rapid breathing is a sign the dog is struggling. It's important not to overexert the dog and to seek veterinary attention. With the exception of kennel cough, these conditions are slow-burners that get worse over time.

Laryngeal Paralysis

Laryngeal paralysis is when the larynx (the entrance the windpipe) doesn't open fully which limits the amount of air reaching the lungs. To figure out if this is your pet's issue, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Labrador
    Does the dog make a 'goose honk' noise with each breath?
  • Is the dog a Labrador? (Labradors are especially at risk.)

This distressing condition makes it difficult to breathe, even when your dog is resting. Avoid exerting the dog and speak to your vet about the laryngeal tie-back operation.

Pressure on the Windpipe

This can be due to an enlarged lymph node, tumor in the throat, or an abscess pressing on the trachea. Alternatively, this is your friendly dog pulling on his choke chain. To see which might be the cause of your dog's pressure on his windpipe, ask yourself:

  • Does your dog have an unusual lump around the neck or throat?
  • Does your dog pull on his leash?

The Veterinary Cancer Center suggests pet owners be alert for subtle signs your dog is unwell, such as reduced appetite or drinking more than usual. Lumps can be hard to find, so a vet checkup is advisable. However, if you notice that your dog likes to pull on his chain, use a harness instead of a collar, and this simple change may resolve the issue.

Collapsing Trachea

A collapsing trachea is when the windpipe isn't rigid enough and each breath the dog takes sucks the windpipe flat. Breeds such as the Chihuahua, Yorkshire terrier, and poodle are prone to this problem. Consider the following:

  • Do you have a small dog breed?
  • Does exercise make the problem worse?

Your vet may suggest corrective surgery which involves placing a prosthetic support around the trachea to strengthen it.

Kennel Cough

Kennel cough is a bacterial or viral infection which irritates the airway and makes it overly sensitive. Kennel cough has a variety of symptoms and is highly contagious. If your dog seems sick, ask yourself:

  • Has the dog been in recent contact with a coughing dog?

If the cough is mild, antibiotics are not necessary and limiting walks is all that's needed. Avoid other dogs as he is contagious. You can expect the symptoms to last two to four weeks.

Airway and Lung Related Breathing Problems

Moving down the respiratory tract airway inflammation, pressure on the lungs or fluid within the lungs can cause rapid breathing.

Allergic Airway Disease (Asthma)

Just like people dogs can suffer from asthma. To see if your dog has asthma, ask yourself:

  • Is the dog wheezing as he breathes?
  • Has he had episodes in the past?

Asthma varies from mild to life-threatening. If your dog is breathing rapidly, and it seems to be asthma-related, keep your dog cool and take him into fresh, clean air. Then seek urgent veterinary assistance.

White terrier

Stiffening of the Airways

Certain breeds, such as West Highland white terriers, may suffer from stiffening of the airways as they get older. They have consistently harsh breathing at rest and play. Ask yourself:

  • Is your dog older?
  • Is he a small breed?

Long term medication with bronchodilators (medications that open up the airways) can slow progression.

Smoke Inhalation

Exposure to fire irritates the airways and causes fluid leakage into the lungs. Consider the following questions to help determine your next steps:

  • Has the dog been in a recent house fire?
  • Does his coat smell of smoke?

If either of these seem to be the case, bring your dog to fresh air. If his breathing does not improve rapidly, seek urgent help.

Lung Disease

Here the lung tissue itself is the source of the problem. These problems reduce the lung's ability to work properly. To cope, the dog takes more breaths in order to make up the difference. The dog will reach a point where they can no longer cope and collapse, so prompt treatment is essential.

Cancer

Primary lung cancer is rare in the dog. More common is a secondary spread from another cancer. Consider:

  • Does the dog have tumor elsewhere, such as a mammary lump?

If you think cancer might be causing your dog's rapid breathing, speak to your vet about treatment for this possible complication.

Parasitic Infections

Topping the list of "best avoided" are heartworm and lungworm. These parasites migrate through the lungs, causing tissue damage, and interfere with blood circulation. Ask yourself:

  • Is the dog up to date with their preventative heartworm meds?

The American Heartworm Society explain treating heartworm is complex and dangerous, and a vet is best placed to help your dog.

Pneumonia

A chest infection can settle on the lungs causing breathing difficulties

  • Has the dog been off color recently, running a fever, or refusing to eat?
  • Do they have a moist cough?

The dog requires antibiotics, so visit the vet urgently.

Pulmonary Hemorrhage

A trauma can cause blood clots to form in the lungs. If your dog has had a recent heavy fall, kick or traffic accident, you should see your emergency veterinarian immediately.

Compressed Lungs

Sometimes the lungs are healthy, but they are compressed and unable to fill with air which leads to rapid breathing. These conditions require emergency help. Left untreated, the dog is unlikely to recover. However, treatment can be lifesaving and in many cases curative.

Pneumothorax

A penetrating wound, such as a dog bite, allows air to leak the chest. Without a vacuum around the lungs, they cannot fill with air. Consider the following:

  • Has the dog been involved in a fight or accident?
  • Is his breathing distressed?

Cover any obvious chest wounds to provide an air seal and then seek emergency veterinary assistance.

Pleural Effusion

More common in cats than dogs, a buildup of fluid around the lungs is called a pleural effusion. The fluid physically squashes the lungs, preventing them from filling with air. The commonest effusions are related to the presence of a tumor, blood, pus, or chyle. Ask yourself:

  • Does the dog's chest look unusually round or feel hard?

A vet needs to image the chest to check for an effusion and then drain it under aseptic conditions. Then to avoid recurrence, the source of the fluid needs to be identified.

Diaphragmatic Hernia

If the muscle separating the tummy from the chest is ruptured, then abdominal contents enter the chest cavity and compress the lungs. This is called a diaphragmatic hernia. If your dog has been in a recent accident or fall, keep the dog quiet and calm. Seek veterinary attention immediately as the diaphragm requires surgical repair.

Non-Respiratory Tract Related

Sometimes the lungs are innocent bystanders caught up in a situation not of their making. Fast breathing shows the dog is struggling in some way, be it physical or psychological. Where possible, identify and correct the issue. Where the causes aren't obvious or the dog fails to improve, seek urgent veterinary help.

Heart and Circulation

Dog under blanket

When the heart doesn't pump properly, fluid builds up in the lungs and hinders gas exchange. This might be an issue if:

  • The dog has a cough that gets worse at night.
  • He is more tired than usual.

Heart scans can pinpoint the exact nature of the heart disease, and help your vet get appropriate treatment started.

Anemia

Anemia, which is a shortage of red blood cells means a lack of oxygen carrying capacity. To compensate, the lungs work harder. If your dogs gums look pale or white, you should see your vet. A blood transfusion may be required while the vet diagnoses the cause of the anemia.

Fever

When running a fever, a dog pants to lose heat. If your dog's temperature is above 103F (39.4 C) or his gums look brick red, this could be the cause of his fast breathing. Antibiotics, drugs to lower fever, and intravenous fluids help a dog through a fever.

Heat Stroke

Dogs don't sweat and their main way to lose heat is panting. If you suspect heat stroke, carry the dog to a cool place, wet his paws, and offer water to drink. If he's collapsed or doesn't improve in a few minutes, visit a vet urgently.

Nausea

Feelings of sickness due to illness or motion sickness will cause panting.

  • Does the dog have diarrhea or a stomach upset?
  • Is the dog a poor traveler?

If the dog has a stomach upset, withhold food and offer small sips of water. If vomiting is repeated or persists for more than four hours seek veterinary attention. For motion sickness, the good news is there is now an excellent medication (Cerenia) available from your vet, which stops nausea but doesn't sedate the dog.

Swollen Belly

An enlarged abdomen puts pressure on the diaphragm preventing deep breaths. This could be due to bloat or a buildup of fluid in the abdomen.

  • Is the dog's belly an unusual shape?
  • Is he unwell?

The Merck Veterinary Manual explains this can indicate a potentially serious problem affecting the heart, liver, or general well-being. Veterinary attention is essential.

Metabolic Causes

The MSD Vet Manual details how conditions such as diabetes or Cushing's disease cause shifts in electrolytes which trigger panting.

  • Has the dog's eating or drinking habits changed recently?
  • Do they seem off color?

The signs are quite general and a diagnosis requires blood tests to pinpoint the problem.

Behavioral

Sometimes rapid breathing is a behavioral response and not directly related to a physical disorder.

Anxiety or Pain

When fearful or in pain, the body goes into 'fight or flight' mode and releases adrenaline and cortisol. These put the body into a state of high arousal, ready to defend itself or run.

  • Is the dog showing other signs of stress such as lip licking, cowering, or avoid eye contact?
  • Is the dog limping or seem in discomfort?

As outlined by the ASPCA it's important to identify the reason for the anxiety or pain, so seek the help of a behaviorist or vet.

Exercise

And last but not to be overlooked, during exercise panting meets the need for extra oxygen in the bloodstream.

Don't Ignore Fast Breathing

Your dog has only a few ways of telling you he's unwell, of which rapid breathing is an important clue. Other vital signs are pale or blue-tinged gums, lack of energy, coughing, weakness, weight loss, or altered habits.

As you see from the list above, there are many reasons why a dog might pant so don't be a home physician. Instead, if you have a panting pooch, do them a favor and have a vet check your best buddy out.

What Does It Mean if My Dog Is Breathing Fast?