By Carl Palazzolo, DVM, Long Beach Animal Hospital
Breathing is another area that warrants close observation. Obvious problems like coughing and sneezing are readily observed; it is the more subtle signs that are easily missed. We want to make a diagnosis of a breathing problem long before your pet is wheezing and gasping for breath, and presented to us as an emergency. This situation happens too often and does not lead to a good outcome in many cases.
Labored breathing is called dyspnea. Put your ear near your pet’s mouth and listen for wheezing or sounds of congestion. Do this subtly—never restrain your pet or hold the mouth shut if there is any suspected breathing problem whatsoever.
Watch your pet’s abdomen to see if the abdominal muscles are being used to help get air. Try to determine if the labored part of the breathing is during inspiration (breathing in) or expiration (breathing out). This can be difficult, so you need to spend time in careful observation to note this.
A problem with dogs in regard to breathing is panting. It could be normal, stemming from excitement or as a way for the dog to cool off. It also could be a symptom of pain or a disease like Cushing’s disease.
Your pet’s respiratory rate is the clue to a breathing problem. An increase in respiratory rate is called tachypnea. In almost every case of significant respiratory disease, there will be an increase in the respiratory rate early in the course of the illness. This gives you a built-in early warning system.
Respiratory rate is the number of times per minute your pet breathes. The typical dog or cat breathes 20 to 40 times per minute. Check this rate early in your pet’s life and before any problems develop to find out what is his or her baseline, or normal rate. This baseline will need to be modified as your pet ages or changes weight.
Breeds with flat faces, like this French bulldog, are called brachycephalic breeds. They have a multitude of breathing problems, and need to be closely monitored their whole lives. Photo courtesy of LBAH.
Watch your pet’s chest rise and fall for 30 seconds. Each rise and fall is one breath. Multiply that number by 2. That is your pet’s respiratory rate. You can do it for 15 seconds and multiply by 4, or just count it for 60 seconds. Do this at least weekly. Do this daily for older pets because of the increased propensity toward heart and lung disease as they age.
Monitor the breathing rate during rest, that is, when your pet is asleep or inactive. For consistency, try to take it in the same area of your house and at the same environmental temperature every time. It will take less than a minute of your time, and it can give you a heads-up if a problem is brewing and you need to bring your pet in for an exam.
What is most important here is to monitor for any change in respiratory rate. If your pet normally breathes 30 times per minute and one week later it is 35 times per minute, start monitoring it more frequently. If it keeps on climbing toward 40, that is a significant change, and it needs to be addressed with an exam.
As with anorexia (see last week’s article, on the topic), the list of diseases that can cause breathing problems in animals is also quite long, so I will go over the more common ones we see, and one example of each.
- Lung disease: pneumonia
- Thorax disease: fluid buildup in the chest cavity
- Trauma: broken ribs
- Congenital problems: diaphragmatic hernia
- Internal organ disease: kidney failure
- Hormonal disease: Cushing’s disease
- Heart disease: Congestive heart failure
- Cancer: hemangiosarcoma
- Pain: a foreign body stuck in the intestines
Next week, I will talk about monitoring your pet’s activity level.