Dogs pant and breathe fast for a variety of reasons. Not all panting is abnormal, though. If your dog is playing hard with you or other pets in your home, it wouldn't be that alarming to see them panting. After all, we breathe faster when we are active. Furthermore, dogs pant to help regulate their body temperature. It also should be noted that panting doesn't necessarily equal difficulty breathing. Dogs that are having difficulty breathing may be stretching their neck out, they may be holding their elbows away from their body to allow their chest to rise and fall more, and you may also see something called an abdominal component to their breathing.
If you ever see your dog breathing in this manner, you should seek medical attention immediately. Here's what else you should know about what's going on with your dog if it's breathing fast.
Causes of Fast Breathing in Dogs
Healthy dogs have a resting respiratory rate of 40 or less breaths a minute, and it shouldn't be labored or difficult. Dogs can breath faster than 40 breaths a minute for many reasons. Some of these are more emergent than others. Your dog may be breathing fast for any of the following:
This is breathing that is associated with a stereotypical honking sound. It's not usually an emergency and is common in smaller breed dogs, such as shih-tzus, Yorkshire terriers, and pugs. Although it can sound frightening, it is usually short lived and either is derived from inhaling an irritant or just being excited about something.
Excitement, Play, and Exercise
Active dogs may breathe faster in order to bring more oxygen into their lungs to better oxygenate muscles as they play. This is the same reason humans breathe fast and heavy when exercising.
When dogs are in pain, they don't always show it. They may not scream out, and they don't cry the same way humans do. Although pain derived from an eye disorder such as a scratch or corneal ulcer can produce a discharge that can look like tears). Panting is one of the subtle signs of pain in dogs.
Stress and Anxiety
Panting can also be a cue that a dog is stressed. Not all dogs that pant are anxious, though, so the whole body language of the dog needs to be assessed to determine if they are panting from stress or because of something else. A dog that is panting because they are anxious may be exhibiting other signs of stress and anxiety, including lip licking, averting their gaze from whatever is causing them stress (such as a veterinarian or vet tech), being hyper aware of their surroundings, and whale eye—when you can see just a sliver of the white of their eyes.
Since dogs pant to regulate their body temperature, if a dog has a fever, they will pant to try to cool off. Dogs that are susceptible to heat stroke, including English bulldogs, will start to pant heavily if they become hyperthermic in an effort to try and cool off.
Certain small breed dogs, such as chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, and toy poodles are prone to a condition known as tracheal collapse. This is a condition in which the trachea, or airway, narrows to an impossibly small diameter. This can limit the dog's ability to inspire air and can cause an increase in respiratory effort.
Labrador retrievers are prone to this condition in which one of the flaps of cartilage that is used to cover and protect the trachea when eating and swallowing no longer retracts and instead remains covering the entrance to the trachea. This can cause a honking sound while breathing as well as more rapid breathing.
Dogs that are in heart failure can have a rapid respiratory rate and an increased respiratory effort. When a dog is in heart failure, their heart cannot adequately pump blood out to the lungs and the body. When this happens, the blood can get backed up into the blood vessels in the lungs. This can put pressure on the lungs themselves, preventing them from inflating all the way, and a dog will breathe faster to compensate for this.
Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome
As the name implies, this is something that affects brachycephalic dogs, such as French bulldogs, pugs, and other dogs with pushed-in faces. As the word "syndrome" implies, brachycephalic airway syndrome, sometimes just called BOAS, is not just one issue with a dog's airway but multiple. This can be stenotic nares, everted laryngeal saccules, an elongated soft palate, and other anatomical abnormalities. All of these by themselves can make a dog predisposed to respiratory difficulty but dogs with BOAS are especially prone to heavy and fast breathing because of their anatomy.
Most commonly caused by kidney disease or diabetic ketoacidosis, this is when a dog's body isn't able to maintain a normal pH. As their pH drops, they start to pant more. By doing so they are expelling more carbon dioxide, which is one way for the body to raise its pH.
Treatment of Fast Breathing in Dogs
If your dog is in respiratory distress—if they are having difficulty breathing, or if their gum and tongue color is changing to a dusky gray or blue—veterinary medical attention should be sought immediately. Upon arrival to the veterinary hospital, your dog will be either placed in an oxygen chamber or given "flow by" oxygen. If your dog is breathing heavily because of heat stroke, you can help actively cool down him or her. This can include draping a wet towel over them and placing a fan in front of them. Your dog may also be given a low dose of a sedative to help calm them down. Being in respiratory distress is stressful to begin with, so the added stress of not being able to breathe well can further stress a dog out and can contribute to increased respiratory effort. Sedation can help diminish this added stress component. If your dog is in respiratory distress due to fluid buildup in or around their lungs, they may also benefit from a diuretic such as Furosemide to help pull this fluid off the lung space.
Once your dog's breathing is stable, the veterinarian can begin treating the underlying cause of your dog's increased respiratory rate. Treatment will depend on the cause. Things like heart failure, metabolic acidosis, and pain are treated through medical management. Things like BOAS, tracheal collapse, and laryngeal paralysis can be managed with medications but they can also be managed surgically.
It can be concerning to see your dog breathing fast or with difficulty for seemingly no reason at all. Respiratory distress—when a dog is exhibiting signs of difficulty breathing or their gum and tongue color is changing—is a true medical emergency. If you are at all concerned with the way your dog is breathing, seek veterinary attention immediately.
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