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Breathing Problems in Dogs – Symptoms, Causes & Brachycephalic Dogs

Breeding Business is passionate about all sorts of domesticated pets. They have written dozens of articles across the web.
Published on
Friday 14 June 2019
Last updated on
Tuesday 9 May 2023
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Feel welcome to our complete guide on breathing problems in dogs. A must-read for every owner, because it is a common issue. You’ll know it all about the symptoms, causes, and treatments because we cover every single point in detail.

Of course, we will also bring you pointers on how to prevent these problems, to ensure the optimal health of your dogs.

Symptoms of breathing problems in dogs come in various forms. Evidently, you noticed that your dog is having breathing problems, but it is just the surface. There are several other symptoms to pay attention to.

  • Coughing at Night – It might be a hint of heart failure because the heart of your dog is not pumping blood properly. Also, it can be caused by lung edema or a collapsing trachea.
  • Increased Heart Rate – Especially after exercising, it is a common sign that your pet isn’t getting enough oxygen, which can be caused by heart abnormalities. Even if a short walk ramps up the heartbeat, it is a serious issue to examine.
  • Not Wanting to Exercise – If your dog has a lack of energy and motivation to walk, run or play, it might be an indicator of congenital heart abnormalities, because blood is not pumping as well as it should.
  • Hoarse Barking – It can be a product of excessive barking, however, if it is accompanied by fever and breathing abnormalities, it is a strong indicator of a respiratory infection. Therefore, it is essential to analyze the context.
  • Anxiety & Stress – Both factors can affect the health of your dog, resulting in symptoms like heavy breathing, lack of stamina and nervous reacting, nonetheless, high levels of anxiety are an indicator of dyspnea in dogs.
  • Stretching the Neck – When this behavior is accompanied by heavy breathing and a faster heart rate, it might be a sign of pancreatitis. It is also a severe warning that your dog might suffer PTE, and therefore, it requires urgent attention by your vet.
  • Panting – Excessive panting accompanied by respiratory gives a hint of heart ailments or poisoning. It is normal after a session of exercises; however, if it is outside this context, it is important to pay attention to it.
  • Sitting Up to Breathe – If your dog always sits up to breathe, because it cannot do it while lying down, it is another sign that its heart may be experiencing issues. It is not pumping enough blood to the organs, especially the lungs. It is also an indicator of PTE.
  • Bluish Gums – A red and purple tinge of the gums, and in some cases in the skin, is known as Cyanosis and is typically accompanied by breathing problems, ranging from mild to severe.
  • Foaming at the Mouth – Frothing is an indicator of various ailments; however, when accompanied with respiratory issues, it might mean that your pet has a problem swallowing something, therefore, congested in the throat.
  • Using Their Belly to Breathe – This behavior indicates that your dog has problems to obtain enough oxygen, and it can be due to multiple reasons like a stuck foreign object, congestive heart failure or an infection. In addition, it can be a sign of PTE.

As you can see, these symptoms also indicate other health issues that may be affecting your dog. Therefore, proper veterinary inspection is necessary.

We are going to learn more about the causes and this phenomenon in general in the next section, by exploring the different causes of breathing problems in dogs.

Useful video explaining how to monitor a dog’s breathing.

Infectious Diseases (Kennel Cough & Canine Influenza)

Two of the most common issues, because bacteria and viruses infect the upper respiratory system, provoking breathing problems, vomiting, and retching.

Both are highly contagious; therefore, dogs can acquire them anywhere, but especially those that live in close quarters. Your pet can acquire it by direct or indirect exposition.

Furthermore, there are outbreaks of dog flu across the country, and you can monitor the latest using this map. An innocent playful lick or the barking of an infected dog can spread the disease, because the moment your dog sneezes on the infected air, he will be infected.

Perhaps, if you live in an area affected by it, chances are your dog has a case of Canine Influenza, and therefore, it might be the origin of its breathing difficulties.

In addition, it is worth noting that brachycephalic dog breeds like Boxers, Pugs and Shih Tzus are at higher risk of acquiring dog flu and other respiratory infections, due to the shape of their skull.

The breathing problems in brachycephalic dogs are especially challenging to treat because their flat-faced anatomy makes it easier for infections to spread as explained by The Kennel Club.

breathing problems in brachycephalic dogs
Breathing problems affect brachycephalic dogs in larger numbers than mesocephalic or dolichocephalic dogs.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

As we have seen above, symptoms like using their belly to breathe and hoarse barking are a strong indicator of an infection, which can include kennel cough and canine influenza. Based on these two factors you can diagnose your pet.

Furthermore, if you notice one or more of the following symptoms, you may be in front of a case of kennel cough or canine influenza:

  • Lack of energy and stamina
  • Fever (A very strong indicator of infection)
  • Dry and constant coughing
  • Dog sounds congested when breathing
  • Thick nasal discharge
  • Loss of appetite

Treatment & Prevention

Even though kennel cough will disappear in 2-3 weeks, it still needs proper treatment to prevent it from evolving into pneumonia, which is a very serious issue. Therefore, a visit to the veterinary is essential, especially if we are talking about a puppy, because these breathing problems in dogs are not to be taken lightly.

It is the same case for canine influenza. It will clear out in a timely manner, and during that time, you need to follow the nutritional advice of your vet and use the antibiotics he/she suggests to combat the infection.

Prevention is the best policy. Here you have how to prevent your dog from acquiring these diseases:

  • Vaccines up to date. Perhaps, the most impactful measures you can take
  • Always screen the pets your dog comes in contact with. They should be healthy and up to date with their respective vaccines. Another reason to be extra cautious and check the outbreak map. This includes sharing and objects that your dog uses
  • Choose your dog care facility carefully. Visit it and make sure that everything is clean, also, make sure to read reviews online to discard any outbreak in the past
  • Make your vet your best friend. Regular visits will help you to keep many diseases at bay, and if you suspect that your dog has come in contact with an infected animal, object or space, a quick visit will help you to catch the ailment in its early stages, where it is much easier to treat


Bronchitis is the infection of bronchial airways, resulting in breathing problems in dogs, constant and harsh coughing and wheezing.

It requires a proper inspection by your vet, especially if it is a puppy, to stop it from turning into pneumonia, like in the case of kennel cough.

It clears out in approximately two months. However, if it lasts longer, it can be a case of chronic bronchitis, which will require specialized treatment. Therefore, we have two types: acute and chronic. The first is easier to treat and the causes are easily found (direct and indirect exposition). Nonetheless, the causes for chronic bronchitis are unknown; however, genetic, immunologic and allergic factors are supposed to contribute to it (first page).

The following factors can give origin to acute bronchitis:

  • Second-hand smoke and air pollutants present in dust and air fresheners
  • Allergies
  • Parasites like heartworm
  • Asthma (A progression)
  • Bacterial infection
  • Viruses

Some dogs are more prone to suffering this disease than others:

  • Yorkies
  • Terriers
  • Pomeranians
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Older dogs
  • Overweight dogs

Symptoms & Diagnosis

If you notice one or more of the following signs, then it might be a case of bronchitis:

  • Persistent and harsh cough
  • Wheezing
  • Breathing difficulties (heavy)
  • Retching
  • Vomiting
  • Gagging
  • Lethargy and loss of stamina
  • Loss of consciousness (severe)

Acute lasts only a few weeks; however, if it surpasses the 2 months mark, it will be labeled as chronic. To confirm it, it will require a series of diagnostic tests like radiography, physical examination, laboratory testing, and airway evaluation.

Treatment & Prevention

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a definitive solution, only a permanent treatment to alleviate the congestion and inflammation.

Of course, the first step is to visit your veterinary to discard other diseases, especially if the cough is very hard and the nasal discharge is very thick and yellow/green and frequent.

The treatment can include:

  • Cleaning up the environment from pollutants, toxins and allergic agents – Investing in a proper air purifier will help
  • Changing the diet of your dog in case it is overweight, under the direction of your vet
  • Antibiotics depending on the severity of the case
  • Nebulization to clean the airways

One of the most popular natural remedies for respiratory problems in dogs is the coupage massage, the answer to how to help a dog breathe better. It is simple yet effective:

  1. Form a cup with your hands
  2. Strike the chest of your dog gently and firmly
  3. When striking, make sure that there is air remaining between your hands and the chest
  4. Monitor how your dog feels, it shouldn’t cause any pain or discomfort
  5. For small breeds, use one hand, for bigger ones, use both hands

It will help your dog to expulse the phlegm, and therefore, decongest the airways.

You can prevent it – in the case of acute bronchitis – by following the same steps in the section of Kennel Cough and Canine Influenza.

Laryngeal Paralysis

It is a condition known to affect the breathing of your dog, also known as “Lar Par”. It suffocates your pet, because it affects the voice box, and hence, it becomes impossible to take deep breathes, resulting in big complications.

Therefore, a serious issue that requires immediate attention and examination by your vet, because it might be the first sign of general neurological paralysis. The sooner you diagnose and begin treatment, the better.

You have to know that there are two types: Acquired and hereditary. However, both present the same symptoms.

It is a common situation in old and large breed dogs like the Collie, Bullmastiff, Dobermann and Great Dane. Although, its congenital form can affect younger dogs and is recurrent in the following breeds:

  • Bouvier des Flandres
  • Pyrenean Shepherds
  • Siberian Huskies
  • Dalmatians

Moreover, even though the causes of laryngeal paralysis are unknown, it occurs when the nerves that control the muscles on the cartilage of the larynx become diseased, first affecting one side, only to evolve later and expand to the rest of the larynx.

Other possible causes of Lar Par:

  • Tumors and lesions in the neck or chest
  • Trauma to the neck or throat
  • Cushing’s Disease
  • Hypothyroidism

Symptoms & Diagnosis

Have you noticed any of the following signs?

  • Intolerance to exercise and lethargy
  • Panting
  • Labored breathing
  • High-pitched sound when your dog breathes in – a huge warning!
  • Coughing – strong indicator if it happens after exercising
  • Hoarse barking

To confirm the diagnosis, please, visit your vet because he/she will able to tell if your dog has “Lar Par” or not very easily with minimal inspection.

Nonetheless, to confirm the diagnostic, a proper examination of the larynx is required while your dog remains sedated.

Treatment & Prevention

The treatment depends on the severity of the case, because mild cases can be treated with:

Other measures include:

  • Limiting exercise for your pet
  • Switching the collar for a harness
  • Avoiding hot environments, because it will only suffocate your dog more

For congenital “Lar Par” and severe cases, surgery is the most appropriate method.

In conclusion, you should visit your vet as soon as possible to diagnose it properly and begin the treatment.


A severe infection of the lungs originates breathing problems in dogs. It can be an evolution of dog flu, kennel cough or bronchitis when they remained untreated.

A dog can get it by direct or indirect exposition, as well as due to parasites like heartworm and aspiration of foreign objects like food. Pollutants and pathogens in the air can also contribute, and of course, provoke breathing problems in dogs.

It is important to note that brachycephalic dog breeds are more prone to aspiration pneumonia due to the deformity of their skulls.

The pathogens of pneumonia are highly contagious, and therefore, it is easy for your dog to get it, especially if you don’t screen the pets it plays with, the dog day care/pet boarding facility you leave it at or if your pet is not up to date with its vaccines.

As a note regarding breathing problems in brachycephalic dogs, it’s important to take quick action, because they can easily evolve into bigger issues.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

The following signs might indicate a case of pneumonia:

  • Frequent coughing
  • Lack of energy and lethargy
  • Abnormal weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Heavy and labored breathing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Nasal discharge and runny nose
  • Panting
  • Dog breathing fast and shallow (often associated with tachypnea)

Your best move is to visit a veterinarian, because pneumonia is especially harmful for puppies, and the definitive way of diagnosing it is by using X-rays to examine the chest of your dog, to check it visually, and it also requires a Complete Blood Count analysis to confirm it fully.

Why a CBC test? Because if the level of white blood cells is abnormally high, it is a strong indicator of an infection, and if the other symptoms are present, it means that your pet has pneumonia.

Treatment & Prevention

The treatment will depend on the type of pneumonia, because as we have seen, it can be due to bacteria, parasites or aspiration.

The treatment generally includes:

  • Antibiotics
  • Nebulization – An effective breathing treatment for dogs
  • Oxygen Therapy
  • Bronchodilators
  • Anti-inflammatory Drugs
  • Coupage Massage
  • Antimicrobial Medication

The best way to prevent it is by keeping your dog up to date with its vaccines, ensuring that it only plays with healthy pets and that you leave it at clean facilities with no previous record of kennel cough or dog flu outbreaks.

Please, pneumonia is not a simple matter. It can be fatal if untreated.

Therefore, visit your vet as soon as possible to diagnose it properly and start the treatment before it turns into a complex episode.

Pulmonary Embolism (PTE)

A serious situation that can be fatal for your dog, an acute blood cloth that grows in the lungs. If untreated, it can result in sudden death. Even though it is not frequent, its prevalence in dogs is estimated at 1%.

This cloth develops because a thrombus grows in a zone of the blood vessels of your dog.  

Your dog may have gotten it if it suffers any of the following conditions or risk factors:

  • Heart Disease
  • Heart Failure
  • Pancreatitis – a stronger indicator if your dog stretches its neck to breathe
  • Anemia
  • Cancer
  • Metabolic Problems

The list is very big, and therefore, it is important to observe the symptoms and take your dog to proper examination as soon as possible.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

Any of these signs can be an indicator of PTE:

  • Persistent panting
  • Anxiety and Excessive Stress
  • Abnormal dog breathing rate (over 40 bpm)
  • Bluish gumsHUGE WARNING! It means the case is severe and requires immediate attention
  • Sitting up to breathe
  • Stretching the neck to breathe
  • Using the belly to breathe

If you see one or more of these symptoms, please, go to your vet as soon as possible, because it can be fatal for your dog. Immediate action is required!

To diagnose it properly, your vet will use the following procedures:

  • Clotting Test
  • Angiography
  • Abdominal and Chest X-Rays
  • Echocardiogram
  • Blood Work

It requires immediate attention and examination because it can be confused with other diseases like pneumonia, neoplasia or a pulmonary edema.

Treatment & Prevention

It requires immediate treatment, and the most commonly used measure is oxygen therapy, to stabilize your dog while your vet proceeds to diagnose it properly.

Depending on the case, your vet will choose the procedure to follow, which can include the use of blood thinners like Coumadin and heparin.

Nonetheless, the cornerstone of the treatment is oxygen therapy supplement with supportive care and permanent monitoring.

Unfortunately, the expected development of PTE is not optimistic; however, the sooner it is diagnosed and treated, the higher the chances of recovery.

Pulmonary Contusion

It is the consequence of a direct trauma to the chest of your dog, therefore, crushing the lungs. Such contusion results in breathing difficulties. It happens because, due to the injury, the lungs start to bleed inside, which is followed by inflammation.

Its severity depends on the level of the injury, ranging from mild to fatal. The harder it was, the more critical the case, resulting in many cases in a pneumothorax.

Our advice is to seek help as soon as possible, because the sooner you treat it, the better the prognosis.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

If you have witnessed your dog to be victim of an injury to its chest, you already have a strong indicator of pulmonary contusion. However, the following signs are worth noting:

  • Vomiting and retching
  • Fast and shallow breathing
  • Pain in the chest area
  • Noticeable wheezing
  • Your dog cannot stand
  • Coughing up blood – A HUGE WARNING
  • Bluish gums

If you notice any of these symptoms, you must go as soon as possible to your vet, because it can be life threatening.

Treatment & Prevention

The first step is to determine the severity of the lung damage, because it is crucial to determine the proper treatment. If it is a critic case, surgery will take place.

However, the main objectives of the normal treatment are to relieve the pain, oxygenate your dog and remove blood and fluids that clog the pulmonary cavities. Overnight observation is encouraged, to ensure that your dog is treated properly, which will ensure optimal recovery.

Good news is that the results of the treatment will show within 48 hours, most of the time. Give your dog appropriate care and patience, because it can take several more days to recover entirely.

Acute Respiratory Distress (ARDS Trauma)

It is a dangerous syndrome that accumulates fluids in the lungs of your dog, which inevitably derives in inflammation. The lungs collapse, originating serious breathing problems that can result in death if the dog is not treated promptly.

It is usually the result of direct trauma, like a pulmonary contusion. It is a life-threatening situation, hence, it requires immediate assistance.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

These are the most common signs of ARDS:

  • Fever
  • Nasal discharge and runny nose
  • Persistent coughing
  • Difficulty to breathe properly
  • Bluish skin
  • Not being able to stand up
  • Sudden loss of energy and excessive lethargy

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is time to visit your vet immediately, because it is a condition that requires intensive care.

Treatment & Prevention

The hardest challenge is to stabilize the dog, but once it has been accomplished, the treatment will progress smoothly and yield noticeable results.

The treatment usually involves:

  • Oxygen Therapy
  • Antibiotics
  • Steroids
  • Painkillers

Your vet will determine the best course of treatment to take, and of course, it includes permanent monitoring, because the most important step is to stabilize your dog, so the healing process can begin.

It is crucial to follow the instructions of your vet for aftercare, because it will ensure the total recovery for your pet.

Heart Failure

When the heart of your pet cannot pump enough blood to the body, it receives the name of congestive heart failure (CHF). It is a serious issue that has multiple causes; however, the most commons are mitral valve insufficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy.

Furthermore, it is divided in two kinds:

  • Left-side CHF
  • Right-side CHF

In most cases, it is a result of valvular insufficiency or valvular stenosis. Nonetheless, other causes include:

  • Congenital defects like Tetralogy of Fallot, ventricular septal defects, subaortic stenosis and persistent ductus arterosis
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Narrowing of major blood vessels
  • Rhythm irregularities

Therefore, prompt examination by a veterinarian is essential to find the real causes of CHF in your dog, and hence, be able to bring a proper treatment.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

The following signs will allow you to confirm if your dog suffers of CHF:

  • Bluish gums
  • Abnormal tiredness and lethargy
  • Coughing at night and while sleeping
  • Loud and labored breathing
  • Coughs up blood – HUGE WARNING
  • Abnormal respiratory rate that exceeds 40 bpm
  • Persistent panting

If one or more of these symptoms are present, visit your veterinarian as soon as possible for a diagnosis, to determine the course of treatment, because it can be fatal.  

These are the most widely used methods to diagnose CHF:

  • X-Rays to the Chest Region
  • Auscultation
  • Blood Tests
  • Urine Tests
  • Ultrasound
  • Electrocardiogram

Treatment & Prevention

The treatment of choice depends on the results of the diagnosis. Precision is essential, because the wrong treatment can worsen the CHF of your dog.

However, these are the most common procedures used to treat it:

  • Diuretics
  • Digoxin
  • Pimobendan
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Oxygen Therapy
  • Enalapril
  • Benazepril
  • Fluid removal from cavities
  • Abdominocentesis

Your dog will need to take medications for the long term, because the objective of the treatment is to preserve its quality of life. Unfortunately, CHF does not have a cure.

With the appropriate treatment and permanent care, owners can delay the final stage of CHF.

Metabolic Issues

When your dog lacks a specific enzyme, it will be impossible for its body to break down certain substances, and hence, such substance can increase until reaching toxic levels that may threaten the life of your pet.

There are two types of metabolic storage disorders:

  • Acquired: It is caused by the diet of your dog, which may include plants that are inhibiting certain enzymes
  • Hereditary: Certain breeds are more likely to suffer such disorders like the German Shepherd, Beagle, English Setter, Bluetick Hound and Cairn Terrie. Unfortunately, treatments for this type of metabolic storage disorder do not exist, and they progressively advance until resulting fatal

In the case of hereditary metabolic issues, they are usually noticeable within a few weeks or months since birth.

As such disorders disrupt the normal functioning of the metabolism, and consequently of the vital processes it controls, it can give origin to other metabolism-related diseases:

  • Cushing’s Disease – Characterized by skin problems, excessive hunger, weakness, excessive urination, and drinking. It makes the body unable to combat infections
  • Diabetes – It disrupts the correct functioning of the kidneys, caused by the incorrect functioning of insulin receptors
  • Addison’s Disease – A common metabolic disease, only identifiable with blood tests. It disrupts the production of cortisone, affecting key hormones like adrenaline and sex hormones

Symptoms & Diagnosis

We encourage you to visit your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis, but the following symptoms will give you a hint of what is going on:

  • Abnormal weight gain
  • Sudden and excessive weight loss
  • Skin issues
  • Excessive drinking
  • Excessive urination
  • Loss of appetite and thirst
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Breathing difficulties

When you notice several of these symptoms, it is time to visit the vet to diagnose your pet and arrive to the root of the problem.

Treatment & Prevention

To bring your dog the appropriate treatment, it is better to go with a vet that specialized on canine metabolic disorders, because these are harder to treat than other ailments.

The treatment usually involves antibiotics, dietary changes and special medication.

In conclusion, metabolic issues are amongst the most complex problems that your dog can face, and therefore, the wisest course of action is visiting a specialist as soon as possible.


Breathing problems can also be the result of cancer, more specifically, due to tumors affecting the respiratory system in key areas, and therefore, occasionating breathing problems in dogs:

  • Nose
  • Sinuses
  • Trachea
  • Larynx
  • Lungs

The causes of cancer are attributed to different factors:

  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental factors (pollutants like tobacco smoke, asbestos, radon, benzene, etc.)
  • Viruses
  • Carcinogens
  • Age

It is a very complex topic; however, these causes can bring you a hint.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

Because we are talking about different areas, we will cover each one separately:

Nose and Sinuses

  • Chronic nasal discharge – Huge warning if it contains blood
  • Bleeding from the nose
  • Snoring
  • Protunding eyeballs
  • Sneezing
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Deformities in the face
  • Labored breathing
  • Pain around the nasal area

Trachea and Larynx

  • High-pitched sound when breathing in
  • Labored breathing
  • Constant coughing
  • Coughs up blood


  • Chronic and painful coughing
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Blood in urine
  • Frequent sneezing
  • Noticeable breathing difficulties
  • Loss of appetite
  • Aversion to exercise

It is important to note that brachycephalic dog breeds are more prone to suffering lung cancer; therefore, regular checkups are a wise move.

That’s why we recommend you to monitor closely all breathing problems in brachycephalic dogs, because they can be an indicator of serious health issues.

Treatment & Prevention

Because it is such a complex issue, the treatment will depend on the diagnosis. Therefore, take your dog to the veterinary as soon as possible.

The best way to prevent cancer – apart from hereditary – is to keep your dog active, check his diet, keep it away from pollutants like asbestos and taking it to regular checkups, to discard any tumor.

Other Causes of Breathing Problems in Dogs

Depending on your case, they can be easily curable or they will require drastic measures. For the latter, only a professional vet can bring as we are talking about serious ailments that can put the life of your pet in serious risk.

Therefore, we invite you to read carefully, to understand the implications, consequences, and treatments to alleviate the episode your pet is passing through, and understand when it is time moment to talk with a veterinarian.

As a matter of fact, we recommend you to be especially careful when it comes to brachycephalic dog breeds because they are more prone to suffering all sort of respiratory problems, ranging from dog flu to brachycephalic airway disease.

There are other causes of breathing problems in dogs, mainly structural and tied to the morphology of the dog itself. These include:

  • Small nostrils
  • Allergies
  • Congenital hernias
  • Low red blood cell levels
  • Obesity
  • Presence of a strange object (your dog swallowed it)
  • Obstruction by aspiration, a common source of breathing problems in brachycephalic dogs
  • Elongated soft palate
  • Asthma

As always, it is smart to take your dog to the vet to inspect it properly. If you still cannot identify what is causing the breathing problems in your pet, you need a specialized and professional diagnosis, because the life of your dog may be at risk.

We hope that this complete guide on breathing difficulties in dogs helped you to understand what is happening to your pet.

Nonetheless, only use this guide for a quick diagnosis, because your veterinarian is the only one who can give you a precise answer, and of course, the appropriate treatment to follow.

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