February 14, 2024

Recognizing and Addressing Breathing Issues in Dogs: A Guide for Pet Owners

Last updated: June 20, 2024
Medically Reviewed By: Ruby Wistreich, RVT and Bradley J. Waffa, MSPH, DVM

The following is provided for informational purposes only. It goes without saying that not being able to breathe, or not being able to breathe adequately, represents an acute, life-threatening emergency. If you have any concerns about your pet’s breathing, please do not attempt to self-diagnose, but bring them to your nearest veterinary clinic for immediate evaluation.

Just as in people, breathing problems can occur in dogs, especially brachycephalic breeds (the smooshy faced kinds: bulldogs, shih tzu, pug, frenchies, etc.). In this guide, we’ll explore how to recognize signs that your dog may be having trouble breathing and discuss effective ways to help them breathe more comfortably.


The Importance of Effective Breathing:

We all know intuitively that breathing – or respiration – is crucial to maintain life, but do you know why? Every cell in the body requires a continuous supply of oxygen as a normal part of metabolism. This oxygen is delivered by the circulatory system, specifically the heart which, in health, pumps oxygen-rich blood through vessels to all the tissues of the body. In the course of that normal metabolism, cells also give off a dangerous chemical waste product, carbon dioxide, that is also carried through the bloodstream. It is the act of breathing that both enriches the blood supply with fresh oxygen from the air (when breathing in), and allows us to rid the body of carbon dioxide (when breathing out). This is a simplification, of course, but if anything goes wrong that keeps you from being able to breathe, cells and their important functions begin to fail, and can rapidly lead to death. Concerns with your pet’s breathing should always be treated as an urgent or emergency situation!


Signs of Breathing Issues:

Labored Breathing: Keep an eye on your dog’s breathing patterns. If you notice rapid or shallow breaths, it could be a sign of respiratory distress.

Wheezing or Whistling Sounds: Unusual sounds during breathing, such as wheezing or whistling, may indicate a blockage or obstruction in the airways.

Coughing or Gagging: Persistent coughing or gagging can be a sign of respiratory problems, including issues with the trachea or lungs. Retching, burping, and vomiting can also lead to contamination of the airway leading to pneumonia, or infection in the lungs, that can be fatal if left unaddressed.

Restlessness and Discomfort: Dogs experiencing breathing difficulties may exhibit restlessness, pacing, or an inability to find a comfortable position.

Blue, Pale, Gray, or Purple Gums: In severe cases, lack of oxygen may cause the gums to appear bluish or pale. This is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention.


Causes of Breathing Issues:

Brachycephalic Breeds: Certain breeds, such as Bulldogs, Pugs, and Shih Tzus, have anatomical features that pose challenges to normal breathing. These can include one or multiple of the following: squished nostrils, an elongated soft palate, everted saccules in the larynx, and a softer-than-normal trachea. These breeds frequently create a lot of noise (snoring and snorting sounds) when they’re breathing; while owners often consider this “normal” (for their pet), it is not physiologically normal and reflects a day-to-day challenge to their normal breathing.

Obesity: Excess weight puts strain on a dog’s respiratory system, making it harder for them to breathe.

Allergies: Environmental allergens or can contribute to respiratory issues in dogs.

Heart or Lung Conditions: Underlying cardiac or pulmonary conditions can affect a dog’s ability to breathe properly.

Tracheal Problems: Some dogs are prone to tracheal collapse, a condition where the windpipe loses its rigidity, hindering normal breathing.


How to Help Prevent Breathing Issues in Dogs:

Regular Veterinary Check-ups: Schedule routine check-ups with your veterinarian to monitor your dog’s overall health, especially respiratory function.

Maintain a Healthy Weight: Ensure your dog maintains a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise to alleviate strain on their respiratory system.

Provide a Comfortable Environment: Create a pet-friendly environment free of smoke, dust, and allergens. Use air purifiers and change air filters as necessary.

Be Considerate of the Outdoor Environment: Hot weather can interfere with a pet’s ability to breathe normally and increase the risk for heat stroke. Walk your dog, especially if brachycephalic, in the morning or evening to avoid the hottest parts of the day.

Monitor Physical Activity: Be mindful of your dog’s activity levels, especially in extreme weather conditions. Avoid strenuous exercise during hot or humid weather.

Elevate Sleeping Areas: If your dog experiences tracheal issues, consider elevating their head while sleeping to reduce strain on the windpipe.

Use a Harness Instead of Collar: For dogs prone to tracheal collapse, opt for a harness instead of a collar to prevent unnecessary pressure on the neck and airway.


If you notice signs of respiratory distress, such as excessive panting, wheezing, noisy breathing, or labored breathing, it’s crucial to contact your veterinarian immediately.

Being aware of your dog’s breathing patterns and addressing any concerns promptly is crucial for their well-being. By understanding the signs, causes, and proactive measures outlined in this guide, you can ensure your dog breathes comfortably and enjoys a happy, healthy life.

Remember, always consult with your veterinarian for personalized advice tailored to your dog’s specific needs.


Worried about your dog’s breathing? Reach out to Truss Vet by giving us a call, booking online, or visiting one of our locations!