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 you need to go see the veterinarian.
Is Your Dog Breathing Fast?
Merck Veterinary Manual lists the dog's normal respiratory rate as 18 to 34 breaths per minute at rest. To sort out what's normal and what's not, count your dog's respiratory rate while they are at rest or asleep. While it's normal to pant after exercise, some signs may indicate your dog is having trouble breathing or experiencing respiratory distress. Examples include:
- Open-mouthed breathing
- Gums that are pale, brick-red, or blue-tinged
- 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. If you notice your dog breathing fast but acting normal with no other symptoms, you may decide to observe them for a few days and keep track of this respiratory rate to see if it returns to normal.
Problems With the Head or Throat
These problems often narrow the airway, making it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs.
As adorable as Pugs, Pekingese, English Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers are, panting and breathing heavily through the nose 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 them cool and carry them home. If they aren't wolfing down treats within a few minutes, seek urgent veterinary attention. It's also good to know that it's common for owners of flat-faced (brachycephalic) breeds to see their dog breathe fast through the nose while sleeping.
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 called rhinitis in the nasal chambers. 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 their nose more frequently, as they use their 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 their collar, half-choking themselves. 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. Except for kennel cough, these conditions are slow-burners that get worse over time.
Laryngeal paralysis is when the larynx (the entrance to 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:
- Does the dog make a "goose honk" noise with each breath?
- Is the dog a Labrador Retriever? (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, a 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 their windpipe, ask yourself:
- Does your dog have an unusual lump around the neck or throat?
- Does your dog pull on his leash?
PetMD suggests pet owners be alert for subtle signs their dog is unwell, such as if they are displaying an inability to bark, reduced appetite, or are 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 their chain, use a harness instead of a collar. This simple change may resolve the issue.
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 is a bacterial or viral infection that 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 your dog is contagious. You can expect the symptoms to last 2 to 4 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 they breathe?
- Have they 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 them into fresh, clean air. Then, seek urgent veterinary assistance.
Stiffening of the Airways
- Is your dog older?
- Are they a small breed?
Long-term medication with bronchodilators (medications that open up the airways) can slow progression.
Exposure to fire irritates the airways and causes fluid to leak into the lungs. Consider the following questions to help determine your next steps:
- Has the dog been in a recent house fire?
- Does their coat smell of smoke?
If either of these seems to be the case, bring your dog to fresh air. If their breathing does not improve rapidly, seek urgent help.
In this case, the lung tissue itself is the source of the problem. These conditions 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.
Primary lung cancer is rare in dogs. Secondary spread from another cancer is more common. Consider:
- Does the dog have tumors 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.
Topping the list of those parasitic infections that are best avoided, heartworm and lungworm infections involve parasites that 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 explains that treating heartworm is complex and dangerous, and a vet is best placed to help your dog.
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.
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.
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.
A penetrating wound, such as a dog bite, allows air to leak from 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 their breathing distressed?
Cover any obvious chest wounds to provide an air seal and seek emergency veterinary assistance.
A buildup of fluid around the lungs is called a pleural effusion, and is more common in cats than in dogs. The fluid physically squashes the lungs, preventing them from filling with air. The most common 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.To avoid recurrence, the source of the fluid needs to be identified.
If the muscle separating the tummy from the chest is ruptured, 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.
A dog breathing fast but not panting, or a dog breathing fast and shallow, is considered tachypneic. Several things can cause this condition, including a sinus infection or diseases of the larynx, trachea, bronchial tubes, or lungs. Dogs can become tachypneic due to other respiratory conditions, such as a collapsed trachea, soft palate disorder, pleural effusions, hernias, tumors, or pneumothorax.
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
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.
- They are more tired than usual.
Heart scans can pinpoint the exact nature of the heart disease and help your vet get appropriate treatment started. An indicator that your dog may have a heart condition is if you observe your dog breathing fast while sleeping, especially if they are older. Fast breathing as well as labored, difficult breathing are signs a dog may have congestive heart failure. If this is already a known condition for a dog, an increase in their breathing rate can mean they are getting close to their final days.
Anemia, which is a shortage of red blood cells, means a dog's blood has a lack of oxygen-carrying capacity. To compensate, the lungs work harder. If your dog's 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.
When running a fever, a dog pants to lose heat. If your dog's temperature is above 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius) or their gums look brick-red, this could be the cause of their fast breathing. Antibiotics, drugs to lower fever, and intravenous fluids help a dog through a fever.
Dogs don't sweat and their main way to lose heat is by panting. If you suspect heat stroke, carry the dog to a cool place, wet their paws, and offer water to drink. If they are collapsed or don't improve in a few minutes, visit a vet urgently.
Feelings of discomfort 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 an upset stomach, withhold food and offer small sips of water. If they vomit repeatedly or the vomiting persists for more than 4 hours, seek veterinary attention. For motion sickness, the good news is there is now an excellent medication -- Cerenia -- available from your vet that helps stop nausea but doesn't sedate your dog.
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?
- Are they 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.
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.
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 hormones 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 seemingly in discomfort?
It's important to identify the reason for the anxiety or pain according to PetMD, so seek the help of a behaviorist or vet.
Canine Cognitive Disorder
Senior dogs can suffer from a condition similar to dementia in older humans. Among the several symptoms involved, one is an increase in confusion from your dog, particularly at night. This can make your dog more anxious, and heavy breathing at night can be a result of the dog's distress.
Observing a dog breathing fast after receiving pain medication is common, as some types of prescriptions can cause your dog's respiratory rate to go up. Prednisone is a medication used for pain that has this effect.
Not to be overlooked, panting meets the need for extra oxygen in the bloodstream during exercise.
Don't Ignore Fast Breathing
Your dog has only a few ways of telling you they are 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. If you want to know how to help a dog breathe better, get them to a veterinarian immediately. This is the fastest and safest way to improve your dog's quality of life.
While it's tempting for many pet owners to try home remedies for their dog, fast breathing is one where you should have your veterinarian examine your dog first to make sure they are safe. Your vet can discuss potential home remedies with you. There are many reasons why a dog might pant, so don't try to be your dog's veterinarian. Instead, if you have a panting pooch, do them a favor and have a vet check your best buddy out.