Dogs normally make a lot of sounds. From barking and whining to whimpering and even yawning, these noises are how dogs communicate and express themselves. But some sounds, like wheezing, are not normal and can make even the most level headed dog owners concerned.
Wheezing is a sign that something is altering your dog’s breathing and should never be ignored. Read on to learn why dogs wheeze, what dog wheezing sounds like, common causes of dog wheezing, and how to treat wheezing in dogs.
Why is My Dog Wheezing?
Wheezing occurs when something partially obstructs the normal flow of air through a dog’s airways. The partial occlusion can be either in the trachea or the bronchi, which are large tubes that carry air from the lungs to the trachea and vice versa. A partial occlusion could be due to swelling and inflammation in the trachea or bronchi, an object lodged in the airways, or numerous medical conditions.
What Does Dog Wheezing Sound Like?
Dog wheezing makes a characteristic sound, sometimes called stridor. It sounds very similar to the noise that humans make while wheezing. Wheezing dogs make a high pitched whistling noise that is more evident on the exhale, or breathing out, than the inhale. Typically, dogs will wheeze with their mouth open, but it can be heard through nasal breathing as well.
Causes of Wheezing in Dogs
Wheezing can be caused by anything that irritates or causes inflammation in the airways. The most common causes of wheezing in dogs are:
Allergies occur when a dog’s immune system overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance—typically pollen, dander, mold, dust, etc. This overreaction causes the airways to become inflamed and swollen, which then constricts the air passages. The result is a wheezing dog.
Typically, allergic bronchitis or allergic asthma will occur shortly after the pet inhales or is exposed to the allergic agent, such as stopping to sniff a plant while on a walk or at home while you are dusting off the fans or furniture. In some cases it can be seasonal, depending on what is blooming at the time.
Wheezing secondary to allergies usually isn’t severe, although it can be uncomfortable for your pet. Therefore, you should still discuss this with your veterinarian and see if there are any adjustments or medications that can be prescribed to help keep your pet comfortable. In severe cases of allergies, such as after an insect bite, the wheezing can progress to anaphylaxis, which is life threatening if not addressed immediately.
Canine asthma, also referred to as canine chronic bronchitis, is most common in older small breed dogs. This condition is characterized by long term inflammation and excess mucus in the lungs. Usually, bronchitis results in coughing, but as the disease progresses, scar tissue forms in the lungs and a wheeze will develop.
The cause of bronchitis isn’t always identifiable. In some dogs, chronic bronchitis is the result of recurrent cigarette smoke exposure, so always be sure to smoke outside the house or open windows on opposite sides of the room to create adequate airflow if you share a home with animals. Asthma in dogs is often triggered or worsened by poor air quality. Dogs suffering from asthma can benefit from adding an air purifier to the home and cleaning regularly to avoid dust accumulation. Unfortunately, asthma cannot be reversed, but dogs can be treated with low doses of steroids to help reduce the lung inflammation.
Many infectious diseases in dogs can cause tracheobronchitis, or inflammation of the trachea and airways, that can result in wheezing. Canine infectious respiratory disease complex, casually referred to as Kennel Cough, is a common culprit. Dogs with upper respiratory infections typically spend time around other dogs regularly by visiting the dog park, doggy day care, the groomers, or even walking in the neighborhood. Usually these dogs have a cough but the secondary inflammation in the airways can leave an affected dog with a wheeze.
Infectious parasites can also affect the airways. Heartworms live in the heart but are over a foot long. Sometimes they poke out of the heart valves and tickle the lung tissue, resulting in swelling and a cough or wheeze. Certain intestinal parasites have larvae that migrate through lung tissue before making their way to the abdominal organs, which has the same effect. Remember, just because worms are not seen in a dog’s stool, does not mean they don’t have parasites. Many times, internal parasites cannot be grossly detected in feces.
Many different substances can cause irritation to a dog’s airways. Common irritants include household cleaning products, perfumes, scented candles, incense, smoke, hairspray, and aerosol deodorants. Dogs who are sensitive to these products or certain scents can develop a wheeze when exposed to them. This cause of dog wheezing is often short lived and only happens when the dog has exposure to the product. Usually it isn’t serious, but it can be uncomfortable for your dog. Make sure you open windows to allow adequate airflow into the home when using these products around a sensitive dog, and avoid using aerosols with the dog in the room.
A wheezing dog could potentially have a foreign object stuck in their trachea or bronchi. If an object is partially occluding the flow of air, a wheezing noise can be observed as the air moves through the smaller space around the obstruction. This is different to a choke, in which the entire airway is blocked.
Dogs with a foreign object in their airways will likely also cough or clear their throat repeatedly in attempts to dislodge the item. This issue is more commonly noted in younger dogs or dogs who have a tendency to chew on items like bones, balls, toys, or random household objects. It is also seen in dogs who run and play in densely wooded areas, as sometimes small sticks or plant materials can make their way down the nose or throat.
This is always considered an emergency. Even if a dog seems to be breathing OK other than a wheeze, the object could move, causing a full obstruction. Or it could make its way to the lungs, causing a serious infection or a life threatening condition called a pneumothorax, in which the lungs are punctured.
The trachea is a tube composed of cartilaginous rings held together by fibrous soft tissue. In humans, the trachea runs perpendicular to the ground, but in our four legged friends, it runs parallel to the ground. Therefore, it can be affected by gravity over time. As dogs age, the trachea can become weak and flimsy, and the top portion of the trachea begins to flatten out, blocking the flow of air through the windpipe. This mostly occurs in older small breed dogs. Dogs with a collapsing trachea will wheeze, cough, and gag, especially when pressure is applied to their neck, like when wearing a collar.
Tracheal collapse cannot be reversed, so it’s important to take steps to manage the condition as soon as it begins. A veterinarian will take chest X-rays to diagnose the condition and prescribe medications to help ease coughing, wheezing, and airway inflammation. Small dogs should be walked on a harness as opposed to a collar to help prevent the condition from developing.
Congestive heart failure resulting from any form of heart disease leads to a buildup of fluid in a dog’s lungs. The fluid takes up room in the airways, and the affected dog might begin to wheeze. In most cases, congestive heart failure will affect older, small breed dogs, but even large and young dogs can be affected. These dogs will usually also cough, run out of breath easily, and in severe cases, their gums may appear purple or blue. Congestive heart failure is always an emergency and warrants a veterinary visit immediately.
How to Treat a Wheezing Dog
Treatment for dog wheezing depends entirely on the cause. In many instances, some over-the-counter antihistamines are perfectly appropriate, while in other cases, dogs may need a short course of steroids or even prescription allergy medication to help them breathe more easily. In severe cases, dogs may require hospitalization for oxygen support while the underlying cause is determined and treatment is initiated.
When to Worry About Wheezing in Dogs
While a dog wheezing is never something to ignore, fortunately, it’s usually not life threatening. If your dog is otherwise acting normally and eating and drinking well, you likely don’t need to run to the veterinarian right away. Simply monitor them in case it worsens and make an appointment with your regular veterinarian for evaluation.
On the other hand, if your dog’s wheezing is also accompanied by difficulty breathing, a persistent hacking cough, weakness or collapse, facial swelling and hives, or blue/purple gums, take your dog to the emergency veterinarian immediately, as these could all be signs of life-threatening conditions.