Considering that pets cannot communicate when their medical condition is getting worse at home, being able to recognize signs that a pet is deteriorating is crucial to the pet’s successful treatment and well being. This is especially true with medical conditions that lead to hypoxemia (a lack of oxygen in the blood) as this is a potentially life-threatening emergency. There are many conditions that can lead to hypoxemia and respiratory distress. Collapsing trachea, brachycephalic syndrome, congestive heart failure, feline asthma are common veterinary conditions that are managed at home but will likely recur or progress, resulting in hypoxemia and respiratory distress (fancy words for trouble breathing). Signs of respiratory distress can vary by patient and condition so the attending veterinarian should outline specifically what to look for.
Gathering the clues involves using one’s eyes and ears and can start from afar:
1. Listen for airway noises
Normal pets do not make a lot of noise while breathing. A honking noise, stridor (high pitched continuous squeal usually on inspiration, or breathing in), or stertor (discontinuous low pitched sound like a clicking or snore) heard from a dog with collapsing trachea, laryngeal paralysis, or brachycephalic syndrome, may indicate that the pet is having trouble getting air in or out. Likewise, wheezes heard from a cat may also indicate respiratory distress. It is important to know what normal sounds your pet makes when they are breathing, as these respiratory noises can be the first clue that a pet is starting to decompensate.
2. Assess the respiratory rate and effort
After listening for airway sounds and looking at the gums and tongue, assess the breathing for both rate and effort. Normal rates of respirations in a pet are up to 40 breaths /minute. To assess the rate of respiration, count the number of breaths in 15 seconds, then multiply this value by 4. For example, a cat who takes 8 breaths in 15 seconds has a respiratory rate of 32. The low end of respiratory rate is only relevant if the pet has a disease or condition that can cause slow breathing, and while the cut-off value for slow breathing is technically 20 breaths/minute, it can be as low as 12 breaths/minute in a deep sleeping pet. On the high rate end, panting dogs confound this evaluation even for veterinarians, so knowing your pet and their breathing rate after excitement or activity is imperative.
Just as, if not more important than the respiratory rate is respiratory effort. Again, in order to know what is abnormal, one needs to know their pet’s normal respiratory effort including after some activity and excitement. One looks at the chest—how much the chest moves in and out along with abdominal effort. Pets usually do not recruit their abdominal muscles to help them breathe unless they have just exerted or are trying to cool themselves. Deeply exaggerated chest excursions or shallow frequent breaths (in the absence of panting) are also clues that the pet may be hypoxemic.
Another sign of increased respiratory effort is open mouth breathing. Cats breathing with their mouth open is always a concerning sign. The same is true for dogs that are not heat stressed or have just exerted themselves. Additionally, dogs standing with extended necks, flared nostrils, and elbows out are working very hard to breathe.
3. Check for blue gums or tongue.
One should not shove anything into or near the mouth of a pet to avoid getting bit or impeding the pets breathing; however if a pet’s tongue or gums have a blue tint, referred to as being “cyanotic,” the pet is indeed hypoxemic and experiencing respiratory distress.
Unfortunately, a pet with pink gums and tongue is not necessarily normal so one has to infer based on the pet’s other signs to determine if they are showing signs of respiratory distress.
A pet in respiratory distress is a medical emergency and an action plan that has been pre-determined with a veterinarian should be instituted when signs indicate that the pet’s condition has deteriorated.
About Sean Smarick, VMD, DACVECC
Pawprint Oxygen does not provide veterinary advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a veterinarian with questions regarding your pet’s health.