Pet Parents

Recognizing Respiratory Distress in Pets

dog receiving oxygen

Recognizing these signs early and seeking veterinary care promptly can be life-saving for pets experiencing respiratory distress. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately for guidance and appropriate treatment.

Identifying respiratory distress in pets is crucial for prompt medical intervention. Here are the common signs and symptoms to watch for:

1. Increased Respiratory Rate

  • Description: Rapid breathing, also known as tachypnea, is a common sign of respiratory distress. Normal respiratory rates vary by species and size, but significant increases should be a red flag.

  • Example Rates: Dogs typically have a normal respiratory rate of 10-30 breaths per minute, while cats have 20-30 breaths per minute ( Today's Veterinary Practice ) ( Canine Journal ).

2. Labored Breathing

  • Description: Difficulty in breathing, also called dyspnea, can manifest as visibly labored or exaggerated breathing efforts. Pets might use their abdominal muscles to breathe.

  • Signs: Flared nostrils, open-mouth breathing (especially in cats), and pronounced movement of the chest and abdomen can indicate labored breathing ( Cornell Vet Med ) ( Merck Veterinary Manual ).

3. Cyanosis

4. Changes in Behavior

  • Description: Pets in respiratory distress might exhibit anxiety, restlessness, or lethargy. They may also avoid lying down or change positions frequently in an attempt to breathe more easily.

  • Behavioral Signs: Pacing, inability to settle, or seeking cooler, open areas might be noted ( Canine Journal ) ( Merck Veterinary Manual ).

Rescue Oxygen Kits for Pets

A pet owner using Pawprint Oxygen's Transport and Rescue system to provide oxygen therapy to her dog. The portable system allows pet owners to safely administer oxygen therapy at home and during transport.

5. Noisy Breathing

  • Description: Stridor (a high-pitched wheezing sound) or stertor (a low-pitched snoring sound) can indicate obstruction or narrowing of the airways.

  • Observation: These noises are often more pronounced during inhalation or exhalation and can be heard without a stethoscope ( Cornell Vet Med ) ( Merck Veterinary Manual ).

6. Coughing and Gagging

  • Description: Persistent coughing or gagging can be a sign of respiratory issues, including conditions like tracheal collapse, bronchitis, or heart disease.

  • Symptoms: A dry, hacking cough, especially if it worsens with activity or at night, can indicate respiratory distress ( Today's Veterinary Practice ) ( Canine Journal ).

7. Postural Changes

  • Description: Pets in distress may adopt unusual postures to ease breathing, such as extending the neck and head or sitting with elbows spread outward.

  • Positioning: The "orthopneic position" (standing or sitting with the front legs spread and neck extended) is commonly observed ( Cornell Vet Med ) ( Merck Veterinary Manual ).

Immediate Actions To Take If Your Pet Is In Respiratory Distress

  • Stay Calm: Your pet can sense your anxiety, which can exacerbate their distress.
  • Assess the Environment: Ensure your pet is in a cool, calm environment. Remove any potential stressors or allergens.
  • Minimize Movement: Keep your pet as calm and still as possible to reduce their oxygen demand.
  • Check for Obstructions: If it's safe to do so, check your pet's mouth and throat for any foreign objects that could be causing an obstruction.

Emergency Veterinary Care

  • Contact Your Veterinarian: Call your vet immediately to describe the symptoms and get advice on whether to come in or if there are any immediate steps you should take at home.
  • Emergency Transport: If advised, transport your pet to the nearest veterinary clinic or emergency animal hospital. Keep your pet calm and avoid putting pressure on their chest or neck during transport. This is when you would use your emergency oxygen rescue kit.

Main Causes of Respiratory Distress in Pets and Prevention Methods

Respiratory distress in pets can stem from a variety of causes, ranging from infections and diseases to environmental factors. Here are the main causes and ways to potentially prevent them:

1. Chronic Diseases

  • Causes:
    • Heart Disease: Conditions like congestive heart failure can lead to fluid buildup in the lungs.
    • Chronic Bronchitis: Long-term inflammation of the airways.
    • Asthma: Common in cats, causing bronchoconstriction.

  • Prevention:
    • Regular Vet Check-ups: Early detection and management of chronic diseases.
    • Weight Management: Keeping pets at a healthy weight to reduce stress on the heart and lungs.

2. Allergies

  • Causes:
    • Environmental Allergens: Pollen, dust mites, mold.
    • Food Allergies: Certain ingredients can trigger respiratory symptoms.
  • Prevention:
    • Allergy Testing: Identifying specific allergens to avoid.
    • Air Purifiers: Using air purifiers to reduce airborne allergens.
    • Hypoallergenic Diets: If food allergies are suspected, consult a vet for an appropriate

3. Congenital Conditions

  • Causes:
    • Brachycephalic Syndrome: Common in breeds like Bulldogs and Pugs, causing narrowed airways.
    • Tracheal Collapse: More common in small breeds like Yorkshire Terriers.

  • Prevention:
    • Breeding Practices: Avoid breeding animals with known genetic respiratory issues.
    • Weight Management: Maintain a healthy weight to reduce the burden on the respiratory system.
    • Surgical Interventions: In some cases, surgery can correct anatomical issues

About Sean Smarick, VMD, DACVECC

Dr. Sean Smarick received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991. He then completed a residency in Veterinary Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care at the University of California, Davis in 2003 and, in the same year, became a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. In his 30 years of practice, Dr Smarick has enjoyed being in the ICU and emergency rooms of private and university practices, participating in CPR and clinical research, contributing to journals and textbooks, training residents and interns, and serving on the board of several veterinary businesses and organizations. Dr. Smarick currently serves as the Post-Cardiac Arrest Care Domian Chair of  RECOVER , as a Trustee on the Board of the PVMA , and as a commissioned Veterinary Corps Officer in the US Army Reserves. In addition to providing local and national instruction to handlers, paramedics and veterinarians, he is involved in pre-hospital veterinary care as a member of the VetCOT ATLS and education committees, the K9 TECC working group , and on the board of NAVEMS.

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