Wheezing in Dogs

An older black lab sitting on an orange chair

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Does your dog make a whistling noise when they breathe? Is the whistling new or has it been happening off and on for a while? Whistling while breathing is a sign that your dog is wheezing. Dogs can wheeze for a multitude of reasons, some of them benign and some of them more serious.

Causes of Wheezing in Dogs

A dog will wheeze when they breathe because something in their trachea (windpipe) or further down their airway is blocking the flow of air. If your dog wheezes for a few seconds and then recovers, it is usually a non-emergency situation, although you should still schedule an appointment with your vet to have the wheezing checked out. If, however, your dog doesn't stop, starts to panic, starts to have trouble breathing, and/or starts to turn blue, this is an emergency and you should seek veterinary medical attention immediately.

Heartworm Disease

Heartworms are parasitic worms that are transmitted by mosquitoes. Almost every mammal, including dogs and cats, are susceptible to them. Wheezing, while it can be a symptom of heartworm disease, is often only seen in severe cases. A dog that is wheezing because of heartworm disease will have such a large burden of worms in the heart that they are literally blocking your dog's airway. Heartworm disease is easily diagnosed with a blood test. Additional tests, such chest x-rays, may be needed to determine how severe your dog's heartworm disease is before starting treatment.

Airborne Allergens

Pollens, mold spores, dust mites, and other airborne allergens can be a nuisance to your dog. They can cause irritation to your dog's airway and this irritation can cause wheezing. Airborne allergens usually present seasonally. Dust mites and household allergens tend to be worse in the winter months when your furnace kicks in. Pollens and mold spores tend to be worse in the spring and summer months, when things are in bloom.

Tracheal Collapse

A dog with tracheal collapse will have a trachea that narrows to an impossibly small diameter. This can create a distinctive wheezing, honking noise. Breeds that are susceptible to tracheal collapse are usually smaller breeds, such as Yorkshire terriers, shih-tzus, and malteses, although any dog can have a collapsing trachea. If you and your vet suspect that your dog's wheezing is due to a collapsing trachea, your vet will want to take chest x-rays to visualize the trachea. Your vet will be able to visualize the narrowing of a collapsed trachea on the x-ray film.

Congestive Heart Failure

CHF, or congestive heart failure, is another illness commonly seen in smaller breed dogs, although some larger breeds are also susceptible to it. Although coughing and labored breathing are more common symptoms of CHF, it can also cause wheezing in dogs. CHF is commonly seen in chihuahuas, miniature poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Doberman Pinschers. Congestive heart failure is diagnosed with chest x-rays, blood work, and blood pressure checks. A dog with CHF will have an enlarged heart on x-ray, high blood pressure, and changes in their blood work.

Foreign Bodies

If your dog likes to chew on things, they may get a little too excited with their chewing and swallow down the wrong pipe. Bones, toys, and even sticks may accidentally get stuck in your dog's airway and this can definitely cause a blockage and wheezing. A foreign body in your dog's airway is diagnosed by chest x-rays and a sedated airway exam (usually dogs need to be sedated in order to physically examine their airway). A good clinical history is also helpful in diagnosing a foreign body in your dog's airway, meaning you noticed your dog chewing on something and then they started wheezing.

Treatment

Treating your dog's wheezing is entirely dependent on what is causing your dog's wheezing.

Heartworm disease can be treated, depending on the severity. In most cases strict cage rest and three rounds of an injection to kill the worms is sufficient. In severe cases that may cause wheezing, though, surgery to physically remove the worms from your heart may be required.

Allergies can be treated with medications to control symptoms.

Congestive heart failure can be treated with medications and sometimes diet changes.

Tracheal collapse is often controlled with cough medications as well as with adjustments to your dog's environment and exercise regimen. In more severe cases, surgery can be performed to place a stent in your dog's trachea to better open it.

Foreign bodies in the airway can usually be removed during a sedated airway exam, otherwise surgery may be required.

How to Prevent Wheezing in Dogs

Congestive heart failure, tracheal collapse, and allergies, for the most part, cannot be prevented. They are something that your dog may or may not be predisposed to or born with. However, foreign bodies and heartworm disease can be easily prevented. Environment control and proper enrichment can help prevent your dog from accidentally getting something lodged in their airway. Heartworm prevention is so common, there are countless preventatives on the market. Most treatments are oral chews taken monthly, but there are also topicals and injectables available. Your vet can help you determine what prevention is right for your dog.

Wheezing in dogs, even if not immediately urgent, is something that you should have checked out by your vet. Your vet can help determine what is causing your dog's wheezing and how best to treat it.