Why is my Dog Breathing Heavy?
If you’ve ever owned a dog, you’ve probably seen it breathing heavily after exercise or on a hot day, but when is it a problem? Tachypnea in dogs is defined as an increased respiratory rate, and this can be normal or abnormal.
It is important as an owner to be able to distinguish when a dog is breathing quickly for normal physiological reasons or when they are breathing fast because of a disease process in their body.
In this article, we will explain tachypnea, the signs of it, what to do and what can be done to fix rapid breathing in dogs.
What is Tachypnea in Dogs?
Tachypnea in dogs means an increased respiratory rate. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with your dog because you can find your dog breathing fast on a hot day or after a run around the park.
Veterinarians will usually quantify tachypnea as a resting respiratory rate above 30 dog breaths per minute. That means that when a dog is quietly lying down or sleeping, it should breathe in and out less than 30 times in a minute. Breathing faster than this would typically be classed as tachypnea, as it is increased compared to what is expected.
Some dogs may just have a naturally higher respiratory rate or there may be another reason for an individual dog to breathe more than 30 times in a minute, but this is the general rule.
What Should I Do When My Dog Has Breathing Problems?
If you think your dog is having trouble breathing, then this constitutes an emergency and your animal should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. The flow of oxygen in and out of the lungs is crucial to life, and an animal struggling to breathe is in a life-threatening situation. Labored breathing in dogs should be a cause for concern and should not be ignored.
If you are unsure if your dog is in respiratory distress, then it is better to be safe than sorry. Get them checked out, your veterinarian would rather see a dog that could be struggling to breathe, and it not be, at all.
If you notice your dog heavy breathing, but it is more subtle, and you aren’t sure if it’s normal or not, you could try to monitor its respiratory rate. This should only be done in calm, resting dogs that are not struggling to breathe.
If you find their respiratory rate above 30 breaths per minute, this is a good reason to get them checked out and bring your numbers with you, so your veterinarian can take a look.
Other signs of respiratory disease such as coughing, sneezing, gagging, noisy breathing, excessive snoring, reduced exercise capacity, and dog breathing weird should also be looked at by a veterinarian if you notice these in your pet.
The Canine Respiratory System
The anatomy of the lungs in dogs is very similar to ours.
It starts at the mouth and nose, which connect to the throat, where the pharynx and larynx reside.
Air flows through the throat down the trachea (windpipe) and into the lungs during inspiration. Bronchioles are tiny air-filled sacs where oxygen from the air is transferred to the blood to provide oxygen to cells that need it to survive.
Carbon dioxide is disposed of out of the blood at the bronchioles and pushed out of the lungs, throat, and to the mouth and nose during expiration.
One big difference between humans and dogs is that dogs use their respiratory system to cool themselves down by panting. Through an open mouth, the fast breathing helps to cool dogs down, as moisture evaporates from their tongue and cool air is brought rapidly into their lungs.
Humans sweat a lot more than dogs and use this instead of panting to cool down on hot days.
What is Normal Breathing in Dogs?
A regular breathing rate for dogs is typically 15 to 30 breaths per minute, but some dogs may be even lower than this if they are very fit or deeply relaxed.
A dog without breathing problems will take deep breaths in and out as its chest gently rises and falls. There is typically no noise or extra effort during inspiration or expiration. Typically, the abdomen will stay still during this process.
Brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs, such as Pugs and French Bulldogs, usually produce noise during breathing. This is due to conformational differences. Although this isn’t normal as a species, the noise is often typical for the breeds and doesn’t always mean the dog needs veterinary attention. However, brachycephalic breeds often benefit from surgery to expand their airways. You can read more about brachycephalic airways here.
How to Know if Your Dog Has Tachypnea or Breathing Issues
It can be challenging to tell if your dog has tachypnea or breathing issues. However, some helpful hints are listed below.
As explained above, it is defined as an increased respiratory rate. This can be normal such as a dog that has just gone for a run or sitting outside on a hot day.
At rest, a dog’s respiratory rate should be below 30 breaths per minute. In general, if it is above that, then this would be classified as tachypnea.
However, this number doesn’t help in dogs that aren’t resting, as the range in a non-resting dog can be from 15 to 200 breaths per minute.
Context can be helpful in this situation. For example, if you notice your dog breathing rapidly, but you’ve just taken them for a long run, then it’s probably normal and should slow down soon.
However, if you’re taking your dog for a leisurely walk around the park on a cool evening, and they are panting heavily, then this might signal a problem.
As an owner, you know your dog best. However, if there is a sudden change in their respiratory rate that can’t be explained, or you notice it gradually breathes faster over time, this could signal a problem that should be addressed.
These conditions in a dog may or may not increase the respiratory rate.
Signs of breathing issues you may notice include increased effort on inspiration or expiration, abdominal movement during breathing, blue (cyanotic) or pale-colored gums, flared nostrils, noisy breathing.
A dog in severe distress may stand with the head lowered and neck extended, not willing to move or respond as it focuses on breathing only.
A dog having serious breathing issues is an emergency and needs to be taken to a veterinarian immediately.
What are the Causes of Tachypnea and Breathing Difficulties in Dogs?
There are many different causes of tachypnea and breathing difficulties in dogs, some of which are listed below.
- Cooling down on a hot day or after exercise differs from heatstroke because the core body temperature stays normal.
- Anxiety in dogs, such as during fireworks.
- Heart disease such as mitral valve disease.
- Lung diseases, such as pneumonia or chronic bronchitis.
- Heatstroke, a severe condition where the core body temperature goes too high and can damage organs. Brachycephalic breeds are more prone to developing heat stroke.
- Pain can cause panting.
- Anemia as the lower number of red blood cells can’t carry enough oxygen to the cells quickly enough.
- Allergies such as asthma.
- Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS)
- Congestive heart failure can cause fluid to build up in the chest or abdomen.
- Tumors or infection in the lungs.
- Heartworm infection.
- Trauma such as being hit by a car.
- Tick bite fever-causing paralysis.
- Stomach bloat.
How is Tachypnea in Dogs Diagnosed?
To have tachypnea in your dog diagnosed, visit your veterinarian. During the consultation, your veterinarian will consider the history, signalment (breed, age, etc.), and physical examination findings of your dog. Once all of this information is collected, your veterinarian may suspect your dog has tachypnea.
Tachypnea is not a disease process itself but rather a sign of disease. Once it has been determined, your animal is breathing too quickly; your veterinarian will likely recommend diagnostic tests to find the underlying cause unless it is self-evident.
Some diagnostic tests your veterinarian may recommend include blood tests, imaging (x-rays, ultrasound, CT, MRI), endoscopy, bronchoalveolar lavage (fluid is put into the lungs and sucked back up to be tested), cytology, or histology of masses.
Also, culture and sensitivity for bacteria or fungi, echocardiography of the heart, fluid analysis from any abdominal fluid found, and testing for infectious diseases such as heartworm disease.
With the information collected, your veterinarian will hopefully find a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan.
Available Treatment Options Against Tachypnea in Dogs
The cause of tachypnea will determine the treatment. In some mild cases, this may not require treatment or a short prescription that can be administered at home. In more severe cases, your dog may require hospitalization.
For example, a dog with heart disease-causing congestive heart failure will likely be put on a diuretic such as furosemide to help remove excess fluid from the body and help with breathing.
Or a dog with pneumonia may require hospitalization and a course of antibiotics. Anxious dogs may require behaviorist training or perhaps anti-anxiety medications.
The sooner your animal with tachypnea is seen by a veterinarian, the better so that treatment can be instigated before things get worse.
What is Breathing Fast While Resting, and Why Does it Happen?
Breathing fast while resting is typically defined as any dog breathing faster than 30 breaths per minute. It can have a myriad of causes, as described above.
Fast breathing may be expected for certain animals and can occur in specific situations such as sleeping in the sun on a hot day, having a dream, also puppies breathe a bit faster than adult dogs.
If you are unsure why your dog is breathing fast while resting, it is best to get them checked out and not ignore it, as it can be severe.
What is the Difference Between Dyspnea and Tachypnea in Dogs?
As we now know, tachypnea means fast breathing (tachy- = fast, -pnea = breath, respiration). Dyspnea is more serious and means difficulty breathing (dys- = bad, difficult).
We have discussed breathing difficulties above, but it is essential to remember that an animal having difficulty breathing constitutes an emergency and should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
A dog struggling to breathe is in a life-threatening situation and should not be ignored or monitored at home.
Where possible, call your veterinarian ahead so that they can get life-saving medications and oxygen ready for your arrival, but if there’s no time, it is best just to drive there straight away.
Why do Brachycephalic Breeds Have Difficulty Breathing?
As mentioned above, it is common for brachycephalic breeds such as Pugs, Pekingese, Shih Tzu, and French Bulldogs to have noisy breathing, but not only that, these breeds can also have difficulty breathing.
These dogs are bred for their distinctive short muzzle, but this can lead to breathing difficulty as the anatomy is affected negatively. Not all brachycephalic dogs show signs of difficulty breathing, but it is a prevalent condition in these breeds.
The difficulty breathing that these breeds experience is due to breeding and the conformation that develops. Defined as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS), it is a pathological condition where the anatomy of these breeds leads to breathing difficulties.
The classic issues in BOAS dogs include stenotic (narrowed) nostrils which limit airflow, a tongue that would fit a normal-sized mouth is often too large for these dogs’ small heads. This can obstruct airflow, an elongated soft palate covering the airways, and a narrowed trachea limiting airflow.
In dogs with BOAS, their breathing is more difficult. Owners will notice when they make loud noises (snoring) when breathing, have difficulty exercising, and struggle to maintain their body temperatures in hot conditions. Severely affected dogs with BOAS can develop dyspnea.
Surgery is often recommended to correct some of these abnormalities to give BOAS dogs a better quality of life.
If you choose to own a brachycephalic dog, it is essential to be aware of BOAS and discuss this with your veterinarian. The surgeries to correct the airways are often not covered by insurance and can be costly.
How to Help a Dog Breathe Better at Home
There are some things you can try to help your dog breathe better at home. However, it is essential to remember that a veterinarian should look at a dog with tachypnea or dyspnea. Specific treatment and advice can be given to suit your pet.
Some general ideas include:
- Keeping your house cool with a fan or aircon.
- Removing any pollutants in the air, such as not smoking inside, not using incense, or strong-smelling candles or perfumes while your dog is around.
- Keeping your animal fit with regular exercise to keep their heart and lungs healthy.
- Not taking your dog for walks in the middle of a hot day.
- Providing plenty of cool, fresh drinking water.
- Grooming your dog regularly to remove excess fur.
- Treating any disease promptly and administering any medication prescribed.
- Reduce anxiety with thunder shirts or calming products, especially around the 4th of July or New Year’s Eve or during thunderstorms.
- Cleaning your house regularly to remove dust and fur.
- Opening a window to let fresh air in.
- Using heartworm preventive medication.
- Managing any pain your animal might have with medication from your vet, physiotherapy, or massage.
When Should I Contact my Vet?
If you are concerned about your dog’s breathing, it is essential to get them checked out by a veterinarian, breathing issues can quickly become life-threatening, and you don’t want to risk leaving it and regretting it.
As you will now know, fast breathing or difficulty breathing can be caused by a range of different things, some more serious than others.
Once your animal is examined and diagnostic tests performed, you will better understand why your dog is breathing abnormally, and you will be able to manage it.
Helen is a small animal veterinarian from New Zealand. Animals have always been a big passion of hers and working with them is a dream come true. In her spare time Helen loves traveling to exotic locations and volunteering her time and skills to help animals around the world. Education is a
passion of hers and she is excited to be able to contribute to I Love Veterinary to inform passionate animal-lovers around the world.