Breathing difficulties in dogs

When a dog does not breathe normally we speak of difficulty or respiratory distress. This breathing difficulty can lead to a real inability to get oxygen properly. Therefore many cases of breathing difficulty in dogs are life-threatening emergencies. You will completely know about breathing difficulties in dogs.

How does the respiratory system work?

The respiratory system allows air and therefore oxygen to reach the blood and oxygenate all the organs.

The respiratory system comprises of: the mouth and the nose on the outside, the pharynx, the larynx and the trachea which passes in the throat and the neck and finally the bronchi which bring the air to the lungs in the chest (or thorax). Imagine the lungs like balloons that inflate and deflate with air. Within the lungs oxygen will pass through the air sacs to join the red blood cells.

This movement of air from the nose to the lungs is called inspiration. In the opposite direction the blood gets rid of another gas, called carbon dioxide towards the nose, it is the exhalation.

Around the lungs, the pleura is a protective membranes. It serves as a “lubricant” between the lungs and the thoracic cage (= the ribs + the associated muscles). The latter protects against shocks: it is the armor of the lungs (and of the heart, placed between the two lungs).


Below the lungs, the diaphragm is a muscle that helps with breathing. It separates the thorax from the abdomen and intestines.

What are the causes of respiratory distress in dogs?

They are multiple and can result from a failure of the lung tissue. However, the lungs are not always directly responsible for difficulty in


breathing. Indeed, an external element which would prevent the lungs from deploying correctly during inspiration (liquid in the rib cage for example). It would prevent them from emptying and filling by blocking the passage of air (an obstruction). It can also a cause of respiratory distress. Except in certain cases, respiratory distress can occur in all dogs regardless of their breed or age.

Lung causes: Ineffective lungs

  • Pneumonia, bacterial or viral infection
  • pulmonary edema: fluid collects in the lungs due to heart failure
  • Lung tumor
  • Pulmonary haemorrhage

Respiratory tract damage: obstruction of the passage of air to the lungs

  • Large heart or tumor: compression of the bronchi
  • Asthma: contraction of the bronchi
  • Foreign body
  • Obstruction of the nostrils: stenosis (nostrils that are too small), tumor, hemorrhage …
  • Infection or allergy: with inflammation of the bronchi or even the appearance of secretions
  • Tracheal collapse: collapse of the trachea on itself inducing a reduction in its diameter

Intrathoracic causes: blockage of lung deployment

  • Pleural effusion: accumulation of fluid between the pleura
  • Pneumothorax: accumulation of air around the lungs
  • Hemothorax: hemorrhage in the chest
  • Tumor
  • Rib fracture
  • Paralysis of the muscles of the rib cage

Damage to the abdomen

  • Diaphragm rupture
  • An enlarged abdominal or liver effusion that puts pressure on the diaphragm and chest.
Breathing difficulties in dogs

How to recognize a breathing difficulty?

Breathing difficulty is characterized by abnormal breathing movements such as tachypnea or dyspnea.


Tachypnea is rapid breathing, usually with the mouth closed. It can be a sign of hypoxia (lack of oxygen in the tissues).

Dyspnea is characterized by several signs:

  • Staggered movements of the chest and abdomen during breathing
  • Nostril movements
  • Wheezing or breathing sounds
  • Orthopnea: dog that stretches its neck and opens its mouth as if it were looking for air.

The color of the mucous membranes in the mouth may change. Blue gums and tongue signify cyanosis, a lack of oxygen in the blood.

Coughing can also be a symptom of difficulty breathing.

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What to do in the event of a respiratory disorder in a dog?

Open your mouth to look at the mucous membranes and check for any visible obstruction and if so, remove the object or secretions that are obstructing the airways.

Take the animal urgently to the veterinarian without putting too much effort or stressing it.

In addition to his normal physical examination, the veterinarian carefully examines your dog’s heart and lungs for a heart murmur or sounds characteristic of pulmonary edema, for example. He may have to palpate the trachea to show a cough. He will do additional tests such as a blood test and an X-ray to confirm the origin of the breathing difficulty and to know the severity of the situation. If the dog needs oxygen, he can possibly keep him under oxygen in a cage provided for this purpose or using a mask.


Treatment will depend entirely on the cause of the difficulty in breathing. For example, an obstruction caused by a foreign body can be treated by endoscopy: a camera is introduced into the airways of the anesthetized dog to find the object. Pulmonary edema treats urgently with injections of diuretics. Depending on the severity of the respiratory distress, your dog may be hospitalized until his breathing stabilizes and improves.

How to prevent respiratory problems?

In animals likely to present chronic respiratory problems (chronic bronchopneumonia, tracheal prolapse, lung tumor, etc.) effort and stress should be limited. The walks will be simply hygienic and on a short leash, the dog must avoid climbing stairs or jumping. It will be necessary to lose weight in case of excess weight and be particularly careful with the heat. Follow the treatments prescribed by the veterinarian.


Brachycephalic breeds (French bulldog, etc.) are more sensitive to respiratory problems because they frequently present hereditary respiratory obstructions (stenosis of the nostrils, soft palate, etc.). Particular attention will be paid to heatstroke and to avoid running them in summer.


Connected portable medical devices (such as necklaces) are starting to be developed to monitor respiratory and heart rate on a daily basis. It will soon be possible to monitor your dog’s vital parameters using his smartphone.