Why is my pet having trouble breathing?

|| January 17, 2018

One common reason for an owner to call the WVRC Emergency Service or for a dog or cat to be brought in for an emergency examination is for difficulties breathing, coughing, or panting.  If your pet is having trouble breathing, then it is always a good idea to have a veterinarian perform a physical examination.

There are quite a lot of causes for a pet to pant, cough, or appear to have troubles breathing, from primary respiratory issues to heart disease to systemic illnesses involving other internal organ systems.  When you arrive, we will most likely want to bring your pet to our Intensive Care Treatment Area to start a physical examination, obtain vitals, and determine if your pet needs immediate help breathing (such as providing supplemental oxygen).  The veterinarian will listen to your pet’s heart and lungs and then continue a thorough physical exam to try and determine the cause for his or her difficulties breathing.

While one technician and doctor are starting to help your pet, another person will be asking you questions about your pet.  A history is going to be an important step to determine if something happened recently to cause the abnormal breathing or if this is a chronic issue.  We will want to know if your pet has any prior medical history or is currently taking medications.

We will try to determine if your pet’s clinical signs are due to an infection (bacterial, viral, parasitic, or fungal) in either the upper airways or lungs (which would be pneumonia).  We will also consider inflammatory conditions, anatomical problems such as laryngeal paralysis (where the focal folds do not open enough or collapsing trachea (a problem with the cartilage rings in the trachea), and even an airway blockage.  We have had dogs present to the Emergency Service for choking on a treat or toy they tried to swallow.

Heart disease is another cause for pets to have trouble breathing or to start coughing.  When the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently, fluid backs up and accumulates in the lungs (called pulmonary edema).  In cats, we often see fluid accumulate in the chest outside of the lungs (called pleural effusion).  Both of these require immediate medical intervention.

Systemic illnesses that affect the kidneys, liver, or adrenal glands may cause your pet to pant or breathe heavily.  Any known trauma that may cause pain or trauma to the chest can cause a pet to pant or have troubles breathing.  Even problems in the abdomen may lead to pressure on the diaphragm and cause your pet to pant or breath heavily.

Once the veterinarian does a physical exam, he or she will talk with you about tests they would like to run to help determine the cause for your pet’s trouble breathing.  Likely recommendations include chest x-rays, blood work, and even a brief ultrasound of the chest and abdomen.  Additional tests may include an EKG, blood pressure monitoring, or a sedated oral examination.

Treatments to help your pet will be determined based on the physical exam and the results of the tests.  First and foremost, we want to make sure your pet is kept comfortable.  We will do our best to get you answers to help you make an informed decision in how to proceed with treating your cat or dog.  Your pet may be able to go home the same day or may need to be hospitalized in our ICU for a day or longer depending on the cause for the trouble breathing.  We may also consult with some of our specialty services such as the Cardiology Service, Internal Medicine, or Surgery Service.  Ultimately, our goal is to get a diagnosis to best help your pet and return him or her home to you and your family.

- Rebecca Brockman, DVM, MS
WVRC, Emergency Services