“Why is my dog breathing fast?” is a fairly common question from dog parents. Sometimes rapid breathing can be normal, but other times it may signal a problem. Integrative veterinarian, Dr. Julie Buzby, puts your mind at ease by explaining how to tell if your dog’s breathing is normal and discussing 10 conditions that may cause your dog to breathe fast.
As a dedicated dog parent, you may spend a lot of time staring at your adorable dog. So it only makes sense that sometimes you might wonder if what you are seeing is normal. This is especially the case with breathing because your dog’s rate and type of breathing can vary greatly through the day.
My goal is to help you understand what is “normal” for your dog and when you might need to call a vet. To begin, let’s take a look at my dog, Jake, for a baseline on normal breathing.
- What is “normal” breathing for a dog?
- What is “abnormal” breathing for a dog?
- 10 reasons why my dog is breathing so fast
- Talk to your vet
What is “normal” breathing for a dog?
Being a hound, Jake likes to spend some of his day lounging around the house. At rest, he should be breathing easily through his nose with his mouth closed. If I were to count how many times he breathes (inhales and exhales) in minute, it would probably be around 10 to 35 times. (For more details on how to measure your dog’s respiratory rate, check out my blog Keeping a “Pulse” on Your Dog’s Vital Signs).
Sometimes during REM sleep, he will be breathing fast while sleeping. He may also whimper, twitch, or growl as he dreams. As long as I can wake him up and he acts (and breathes) normally once he is awake. this isn’t a cause for concern. These actions are probably just a dream, not something more scary like a seizure in dogs.
If he goes outside and romps with my kids in warm weather, he may start panting with an open mouth and his tongue sticking out. This is a normal way for dogs to cool down since they don’t have as many sweat glands as people do. As long as he isn’t panting extremely hard, is still acting normal, and stops panting once he cools down inside, I’m not too worried.
What is “abnormal” breathing for a dog?
Now that you have an idea of what is normal, let’s talk about what might be a cause for concern. Be on the look out for:
- Rapid breathing (greater than 40 breaths per minute), especially while resting or sleeping.
- Abnormal noises (grunts, squeaks, or harsh sounds) while breathing.
- Panting for seemingly no reason (no recent exercise, environment is cool, not laying in a sunbeam).
- Rapid breathing through a slightly open mouth without the tongue sticking out.
- Increased respiratory effort (pushing with the abdomen to get air in or out).
- Shallow rapid breathing or abnormally slow and deep breathing.
- Bluish tinge to gums or tongue.
- Breathing hard or fast while standing up and being unwilling to rest or lie down for long.
- Acting like he or she can’t catch his or her breath or looking distressed.
If you notice any of these signs, this may mean that your dog is experiencing breathing issues. Immediately bring him or her to your veterinarian for evaluation and treatment. Respiratory distress can be fatal, so don’t delay in getting help for your dog.
10 reasons why my dog is breathing so fast
From here on, we are going to talk about some of the common medical conditions that may cause your dog to be breathing fast and/or breathing abnormally. Be warned that many conditions can cause similar signs and not every possible problem is listed here. Your vet is the best person to diagnose and treat your dog if he or she is having breathing problems.
1. Laryngeal paralysis
Your dog’s larynx is also called a “voice box” because of its box-like shape and role in making sounds. It is located in the back of the throat at the top of the trachea. Small muscles cause the laryngeal flaps to cover the tracheal opening when your dog eats and drinks. They also pull the laryngeal flaps out of the way while the dog breathes to allow maximal airflow into the trachea.
If there is a problem with the nerves that control the laryngeal muscles, the laryngeal flap(s) don’t move and can partially obstruct the entrance to the trachea. This creates resistance as air moves past the defective flap(s) and means less air gets to the lungs.
Neck trauma and other underlying health issues can cause laryngeal paralysis in dogs . However, in senior dogs, the cause is often unknown. Researchers believe it may be one component of condition called geriatric onset laryngeal paralysis and polyneuropathy (GOLPP). Dogs who have GOLPP may also suffer from generalized muscle weakness and esophageal dysfunction. Laryngeal paralysis seems to be more common in some breeds such as German Shepherd dogs, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers but can occur in any dog.
Signs of laryngeal paralysis include:
- Raspy or harsh breathing
- Changes in your dog’s “voice” (bark sounds different)
- Increased panting
- High-pitched noisy breathing which worsens when excited or active
In severe cases, laryngeal paralysis can cause acute respiratory distress. If you see that your dog is having breathing difficulties or his gums appear blue in color, contact your nearest veterinarian immediately. Some dogs with laryngeal paralysis benefit from tie back surgery for dogs and/or medical and environmental management (more on that in my blog Canine Laryngeal Paralysis: A Veterinarian Answers Your Questions).
2. Tracheal collapse
The trachea is the large tube-shaped structure that runs down the neck and into the chest before splitting into the main bronchi (i.e. airways) that lead into the lungs. Among other things, the trachea functions to deliver oxygen-rich air to the lung tissue and transport carbon dioxide-laden air back to the outside world.
A healthy trachea is comprised of firm cartilaginous rings that make up about 80% of the circumference of the trachea. The other 20% is a soft-tissue structure called the dorsal tracheal membrane that spans the space between the edges of the rings.
As dogs age, the cartilaginous tracheal rings lose their rigidity, and the dorsal membrane tends to sink down into the tracheal space. These conditions cause compression of the airway, shrinking the amount of space through which air can move. Picture this sort of like trying to drink a thick milkshake through a flimsy straw. The straw tends to collapse so you don’t get much milkshake.
The same thing happens in collapsed trachea in dogs. As the trachea collapses and narrows during breathing, the dog can’t get as much air into or out of the lungs. This leads to frequent coughing (sounds like a goose honking), rapid breathing, and sometimes respiratory distress. Immediately contact your vet if your dog is having trouble breathing.
Tracheal collapse can happen in any dog, but it tends to be more common in Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus, Yorkshire Terriers, Boston Terriers, Pomeranians, Lhasa Apsos, and Toy Poodles. Obesity also tends to make tracheal collapse more severe. This is one of the many reasons why it is important to know how to assess the canine body condition score (BCS) of your dog and learn how to help your dog lose weight if needed.
3. Respiratory infections and pneumonia
Many bacterial, viral, and fungal agents can infect the respiratory tract (nose, trachea, airways, and lung tissue). Some infections remain contained to the trachea or larger airways where they cause inflammation of those structures. Kennel cough (infectious tracheobronchitis) is a well-known airway and trachea infection that may be caused by a multitude of bacteria or viruses. Dogs with an uncomplicated case of kennel cough may only have a harsh cough but still breathe normally.
However, sometimes the agents causing kennel cough (or other infectious agents) can spread deep into the lung tissue, causing pneumonia. Alternatively, a dog may develop aspiration pneumonia if he or she breathes in a bit of food, fluid, or vomit. This can happen to any dog but is more common in dogs with laryngeal paralysis because their airway is unprotected due the the malfunctioning laryngeal flaps.
Pneumonia is problematic because the alveoli (i.e. airsacs) in the lungs become filled with fluid and debris from the infection. Now the alveoli can’t do their job of exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen as effectively. This may lead to low oxygen in the blood and fast or difficult breathing. Fever and a lethargic dog are two other common pneumonia symptoms.
4. Lower airway disease
There are any number of diseases that can affect the lower respiratory tract such as bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchioles or small airways) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is a type of progressive and chronic bronchitis. The cause for some of these lower airway diseases is unknown, but factors like obesity, infections, and environmental irritants can worsen the intensity of symptoms.
Ongoing inflammation causes narrowing of the lower airways. This makes it more difficult for oxygen to get to the lungs and for carbon dioxide to leave the lungs. As a result, dogs with lower airway disease may cough frequently. They may show fast, heavy breathing and they may pant more often. Sometimes even mild physical activity can cause breathing difficulties, and severely affected dogs may collapse due to lack of oxygen.
If your dog is coughing or breathing fast, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Also take note of if the respiratory problems seem to be linked to exposure to anything in the environment (i.e. cigarette smoke, air fresheners, candles, pollen, etc).
5. Heat stroke
In order to help regulate their body temperature, humans sweat through special glands in their skin when they get hot. As the sweat evaporates, it helps to cool them down. However, dogs only have sweat glands in their paws. This is not enough to help them cool off completely, so they rely on panting as a primary mechanism for dissipating heat.
Sometimes there are instances where a dog’s body cannot cool down fast enough. If a dog is stuck inside a car (even if the windows are cracked) on a hot day, panting is not enough to lower a rapidly rising body temperature as the temperature inside the car climbs. (To learn more, head over to the AVMA website to read their article about the dangers of pets in vehicles.) Or if a dog is exercising on a warm day, he or she can easily overheat. Many dogs will keep on playing even when they are extremely hot, so you can’t rely on them to know when to stop.
By the time the body’s temperature goes beyond 106 degrees Fahrenheit, the internal organs can start to shut down. This condition is called heat stroke in dogs, and it is a life-threatening medical emergency. Some of the tell-tale signs of heat stroke are:
- Heavy panting or difficulty breathing
- Disorientation and/or seizures or tremors
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Change in gum color—may be bluish purple, grey, or bright red
If you notice any of these signs, immediately head to the veterinary clinic ASAP with the A/C blasting. You can quickly hose your dog down with cool water before jumping in the car but do not submerge your dog in water or use an ice bath as both could be dangerous.
Use caution in the heat
Especially during the summer, it is very important to protect your dog from the heat. Even a slightly warm day can turn deadly, especially for dogs who are more prone to heatstroke. While all dogs could have heat stroke, it tends to be more common in:
- Dogs with a dark or thick haircoat that holds heat.
- Brachycephalic breeds (i.e. those with short noses) because they often have small nasal passages, a narrowed airway due to an elongated soft palate, tiny nostrils, and a skinny trachea, all of which make breathing and getting rid of heat quite difficult.
- Overweight or obese dogs. (Unsure? Read my post, Is My Dog Overweight?)
- Dogs with medical conditions such as heart disease, laryngeal paralysis, or collapsed trachea.
6. Heart Disease
The heart is one of the most important organs in your dog’s body because it pumps oxygen-rich red blood cells throughout the body. Pressure from the heart is part of what drives oxygen-depleted cells back toward the lungs in order to restock with the oxygen that a dog needs to survive. Anything that disrupts the heart’s function can be dangerous to your dog.
Heart disease in dogs can be defined as anything from electrical disturbances (e.g., arrhythmias) to disorders that affect the size and strength of the heart’s chambers (i.e. valvular disease, dilated cardiomyopathy or heartworm disease in dogs). The end result is a heart that is not functioning correctly. When the heart isn’t distributing enough oxygen around the body, your dog will begin to breathe faster to try to compensate. As fluid pools in the lungs or abdomen due to congestive heart failure, breathing becomes even more difficult.
Some other common symptoms of heart disease include:
- Coughing, especially at night or when excited
- Exercise intolerance
- Breathing fast while sleeping or resting (over 40 breaths per minute)
- Blue or purple gums
- Collapsing episodes
- Respiratory distress
If you notice any of these signs, contact your vet immediately. Heart disease isn’t curable. But it can often be managed for a period of time with different medications to continue to allow your dog to have a good quality of life.
Dogs can experience pain for a variety of reasons and tend to be masters of hiding their pain. Sometimes they vocalize or favor a limb to show us they are hurting. Other times, signs of pain in dogs may be more subtle. Painful dogs may pant excessively or breathe fast while resting. They may also become more withdrawn and hide, hold their bodies abnormally, or exhibit other behavior changes.
Some common sources of pain include:
- Orthopedic problems such as canine arthritis, hip dysplasia in dogs, torn ACL in dogs, or IVDD in dogs
- Gastrointestinal problems like foreign bodies or pancreatitis in dogs
- Mouth pain from dental disease in dogs, dog tooth abscesses or older dogs losing teeth
- Ear or eye pain from infections or injuries
- Recent surgery
If you think your dog could be in pain, make an appointment with your vet. Although it may be tempting to share your pain medication with your dog, human medications like Advil can be dangerous for dogs, so don’t do it.
Recently, I was doing a wellness exam on a senior Scottie dog. His doting dad mentioned that he had been panting more often during the day and was acting a bit “off.” He had pristine senior bloodwork and his heart and lungs sounded great. However, he did tense up when I manipulated his hips and knees, so I suspected arthritis pain was becoming a problem.
We started him on a joint supplement for dogs, and I suggested a trial of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). When his dad called with an update, he was thrilled to report that his pup was panting less and seemed like a new dog!
Cancer in dogs can affect your dog’s breathing in a few different ways. If your dog has lung cancer in one of the lung lobes, inflammation and pressure from the tumor can cause coughing and trouble breathing. Cancer elsewhere in the body can metastasize (i.e. spread) to the lungs, which can also cause a dog to breathe more rapidly.
Additionally, certain cancers can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs (i.e. pulmonary edema) or around the lungs (i.e. pleural effusion). Pulmonary edema interferes with the dog’s ability to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, and pleural effusion prevents the lungs from fully expanding. Both of these conditions can lead to an increased respiratory rate or changes in respiratory effort.
Oxygen, which is vital for survival, is carried to the tissues on red blood cells. Thus, if a dog is anemic (i.e. has low red blood cell numbers) less oxygen can get to the tissues. When this happens, the dog may start breathing faster to try to compensate. Pale gums, lethargy, and weakness are other signs of anemia.
A variety of conditions can cause anemia including:
- Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (i.e. body attacking it’s own red blood cells)
- Tick borne diseases
- Blood-sucking parasites (i.e. fleas, ticks, hookworms, etc.)
- Internal bleeding from trauma, hemangiosarcoma in dogs, splenic masses in dogs, GI ulcers, and other causes
- Bone marrow suppression from cancer, chronic disease, etc.
- Toxins, chemicals, and medications
Anemia can be life-threatening. If you suspect your dog could be anemic, bring your dog to the veterinarian immediately for testing and treatment.
If you are asking yourself, “Why is my dog panting and restless?” one of the possible answers is anxiety. In addition to panting excessively or breathing fast, anxious dogs may also yawn when not tired, cower and tremble, or become destructive or aggressive. Dogs can become anxious for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Separation anxiety
- Noise phobia (i.e. thunderstorms, fireworks, construction, etc.)
- Changes in the home (i.e. new baby, new pet, visitors, moving, remodeling, etc.)
- Dementia in dogs
- Fear and stress associated with pain in dogs
- Senior dog anxiety at night
If you believe your dog is anxious, please talk to your vet sooner rather than later. Addressing anxiety when it first starts is much easier than addressing it when it has been reinforced by weeks, months, or years of anxiety-inducing situations. There are many pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical options that can help a dog deal with anxiety.
Talk to your vet
As you have probably gathered from this list, there are a variety of reasons a dog might be breathing fast and many of them can be quite serious or even life-threatening. If you are unsure if your dog is breathing normally, try to count his or her breathing rate (remembering that 10-35 breaths per minute is considered normal and anything over 40 breaths per minute is definitely a cause for concern). Also, consider taking a quick video of how your dog is breathing in case anything changes by the time you get to the vet.
Most importantly, seek veterinary care promptly if you have any concerns about how your dog is breathing. You know your dog, so trust your instincts. I know it isn’t easy to be intently staring at your dog and trying to decide if you should call the vet or wait and see what happens. When in doubt, make the call. Maybe you will get the good news that your dog is fine. Or maybe your attention to detail will help your vet catch one of these conditions before it becomes more serious. Watching your dog’s breathing may even save his or her life!
If your dog was breathing fast, what was the cause?
Please share your pup’s story below so others can learn from your experiences.