7 Common Breathing Problems in Dogs [+Signs, Causes & Prevention]

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vet checking pugs breathing

Breathing issues are relatively common in dogs, and they can be life-threatening or signify an underlying health condition. Understanding the major respiratory conditions that affect dogs can help you recognize problems and seek help early. 

Some common breathing conditions in dogs are:

  • Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome
  • Allergic pneumonitis
  • Diaphragmatic hernia
  • Laryngitis
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Rhinitis/Sinusitis
  • Tracheal collapse

In this article, we’ll walk through conditions that can cause breathing problems in your dog. I’ll explain each condition’s signs, preventative measures, and treatments. Then, I’ll share in which part of the life cycle each condition may affect your dog. I’ll finish with a list of common symptoms of breathing conditions in dogs and give you some healthcare tips.

Common Breathing Problems

Various conditions can affect your dog’s ability to breathe. Some problems, like allergic rhinitis and tracheal collapse, can be inherited, while others, like canine influenza and kennel cough, are infectious conditions.

Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome(BOAS)

Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS) in dogs is a congenital condition of flat-faced dogs that features anatomical abnormalities in the upper respiratory system, including a narrow windpipe, narrow nostrils, and an elongated soft palate.

Dogs are born with BOAS, but the symptoms usually start to appear in dogs around 1-4 years old.

Signs of BOAS in dogs include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Noisy breathing/snoring
  • Coughing
  • Gagging
  • Pale gums
  • Collapse

BOAS is a genetically linked congenital condition. Predisposed breeds include Pugs, French and English Bulldogs, Boxers, Boston Terriers, Shih Tzus, and Pekingese.

If you don’t pursue treatment, your dog may have difficulty breathing, worsening symptoms, and eventual collapse.

Flat-faced breeds are born with the anatomy that causes symptoms of BOAS. If you have a brachycephalic breed, you can prevent severe symptoms by limiting exercise/exertion, keeping your dog inside in extreme heat/humidity, and controlling your dog’s weight.

Treatment of severe BOAS in dogs is surgical and may include trimming back the soft palate, widening the nostrils, and removing everted laryngeal saccules. 

Allergic pneumonitis

Allergic pneumonitis is an allergic reaction to repeated exposure to an environmental trigger. It leads to inflammation of air sacs in the lungs and can be acute or chronic.

There is no age predilection for allergic pneumonitis; it can affect dogs of any age but usually surfaces in adults after repeated allergen exposure.

Signs of allergic pneumonitis include:

  • Productive or dry cough
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Bluish mucous membranes

The inflammation associated with allergic pneumonitis is caused by an immune-mediated hypersensitivity to an allergen.

Without treatment, your dog may experience respiratory distress and struggle to get enough oxygen. He may lose his appetite or faint. Ignoring chronic conditions can lead to a reduced quality of life.

 Allergic pneumonitis is difficult to prevent. If you can identify the allergen trigger, you may be able to avoid future exposures.

Treatment for this condition starts with removing the offending allergen and administering corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. If your dog’s airway is constricting, your veterinarian will give him a bronchodilator to open the airway, and he may also give oxygen therapy in severe cases.

Diaphragmatic hernia

A diaphragmatic hernia is an opening or break in the diaphragmatic muscle that allows an abdominal organ to move into the chest cavity. This leads to breathing difficulties.

Diaphragmatic hernias can affect any age or breed of dog.

Symptoms of a diaphragmatic hernia vary depending on the severity and may include:

Minor hernia

  • Exercise intolerance
  • Mild digestive upset

Moderate to severe hernia

  • Respiratory distress
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Muffled lung/heart sounds
  • bloat(if stomach is involved)
  • Shock
  • Abdomen feels empty when palpated

Causes of diaphragmatic hernias include congenital defects (5-10% of cases) and trauma(85% of cases).

Without treatment, organs can become trapped in the chest cavity and cause life-threatening conditions. The lungs may also adhere to the hernia and cause scarring that interferes with breathing.

Prevention of breathing problems from diaphragmatic hernias includes repairing hernias as soon as possible. To help prevent congenital hernias, buy puppies with no familial history of hernias.

Once your veterinarian diagnoses a diaphragmatic hernia, he will work to stabilize your dog. This may include draining any accumulated fluid from the chest. Then, the hernia must be surgically repaired. 


Laryngitis in dogs involves inflammation and fluid buildup in the mucous membranes of the larynx or voice box.

Any age or breed of dog can suffer from laryngitis.

Signs of laryngitis include:

  • Difficult/noisy breathing
  • Slowed breathing
  • High pitched breathing
  • Gagging/retching
  • Dry cough or moist/painful cough
  • Swollen larynx
  • Changes in vocalization
  • Excessive panting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Bluish gums

Causes of laryngitis include inhalation of an irritating substance or allergen, foreign object, upper respiratory infection, insect bites, cancer, laryngeal trauma, and excessive barking.

Leaving laryngitis untreated puts your dog at risk for a blocked airway, severe respiratory distress, or collapse and suffocation.

Prevention of laryngitis in dogs includes protecting them from allergens and irritating substances like smoke or dust particles.

Treatment for laryngitis depends on the severity of the condition and may include anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling, treatment of underlying conditions, cough suppressants, bronchodilators, insertion of a tracheostomy tube, and oxygen therapy/ventilator support.

Pulmonary edema

Dogs with pulmonary edema have an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the lungs, air sacs, or airways.

Pulmonary edema is more common in adult or senior dogs than in puppies.

Signs of pulmonary edema include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Crackling sounds when breathing
  • Distress
  • Coughing
  • Open-mouthed breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Blue lips/tongue 
  • Weak pulse
  • Collapse

Causes of pulmonary edema include a high sodium diet, chronic heart conditions, obesity, low blood protein, smoke inhalation, toxins, pneumonia, electrocution, and near drowning.

Depending on the cause and severity, pulmonary edema can be a life-threatening condition. If you suspect your dog has fluid in his lungs, contact your veterinarian immediately. Leaving it untreated can cause severe distress, collapse, or death.

The prevention of pulmonary edema includes treating underlying heart conditions, protecting electrical cords in your house, keeping your dog at a healthy weight, and providing a balanced diet with appropriate levels of minerals and protein.

Treatment for pulmonary edema may include oxygen supplementation, diuretics, vasodilators, and anti-inflammatories. 


Rhinitis and sinusitis involve inflammation of the mucous membranes in the nasal passages and sinuses. The conditions frequently occur together.

Rhinitis and sinusitis can affect dogs of any breed or age.

Signs of rhinitis and sinusitis include:

  • Excessive sneezing
  • Snoring
  • Difficulty breathing/open-mouthed breathing
  • Heavy panting
  • Nasal discharge
  • Bad breath
  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite

Rhinitis and sinusitis are usually caused by a viral infection, but there can be a secondary bacterial component. Other contributing factors include tooth root abscesses, nasal mites, seasonal allergies, foreign bodies, trauma, congenital abnormalities (common in brachycephalic breeds), and tumors.

Leaving rhinitis and sinusitis untreated causes your dog unnecessary distress and significantly impacts his quality of life. If a secondary bacterial infection occurs, it may spread to other organs and cause systemic disease.

To prevent rhinitis or sinusitis, stay up to date on preventative vaccinations, schedule regular dental checkups and cleanings, and minimize exposure to known allergens.

Treatment for rhinitis and sinusitis in dogs depends on the underlying cause. It may include antihistamines or anti-inflammatories to reduce swelling, antibiotics or antifungals for secondary infections, and surgery for tumors, trauma, or congenital deformities.

Tracheal collapse

Tracheal collapse occurs in dogs when the rigid cartilage rings in the windpipe weaken and collapse during breathing.

Middle-aged to senior dogs are most commonly affected by tracheal collapse.

Signs of tracheal collapse include:

  • Dry, honking cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gagging, retching, or vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Cyanosis

Tracheal collapse is usually chronic and multifactorial. Contributing causes include genetics, nutritional factors, and age. Small-breed dogs, including Pomeranians, Yorkshire Terriers, Pugs, Miniature/Toy Poodles, and Chihuahuas, are more susceptible to developing the condition.

Prevention of tracheal collapse starts by selecting puppies with no familial history of the condition. If you have a toy or miniature breed, use a harness rather than a neck collar to walk or restrain your dog and help your pooch maintain a healthy weight.

If your dog shows signs of tracheal collapse, treatment may include cough suppressants, antibiotics, steroids, bronchodilators, and sedatives to reduce anxiety. If your dog has a severe case, surgery may be indicated.

Breathing Health Problems across the Lifecycle

Depending on the underlying cause, breathing problems can affect dogs at any point in the lifecycle. Some congenital conditions like BOAS are already present in puppies, while other issues like tracheal collapse and pulmonary edema tend to manifest in adult or senior dogs.

Breathing Health Problems in Puppies

Puppies can be born with conditions that contribute to breathing problems. Although rare, some diaphragmatic hernias can arise from a congenital weakness. Dogs with symptoms of BOAS are also born with anatomical deformities that cause breathing problems.

Breathing Health Problems in Adult Dogs

Many breathing problems in dogs commonly manifest in adulthood. Dogs with BOAS usually start to show symptoms around 1-4 years of age. Non-congenital diaphragmatic hernias frequently occur during the adult stage.

Infectious respiratory conditions such as laryngitis, Rhinitis, and Sinusitis are also frequently seen in adults, although they can affect any age dog. Another condition that frequently surfaces in mature pups is allergic pneumonitis.

Breathing Health Problems in Senior Dogs

 Older dogs can suffer from breathing problems that affect all ages like laryngitis and rhinitis/sinusitis. However, certain conditions like pulmonary edema and tracheal collapse are more common in middle-aged to senior canines because they’re frequently associated with chronic disease or degenerative changes.

Breathing Problem Signs Dog Parents Should Beware of

Breathing problems in your dog can cause distress or may be life-threatening. Knowing common signs helps you to recognize trouble and seek veterinary care. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Wheezing/high-pitched breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Slowed breathing 
  • Excessive panting/open-mouthed breathing
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Noisy breathing/snoring
  • Coughing
  • Gagging
  • Pale gums
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Muffled lung/heart sounds
  • Abdomen feels empty when palpated
  • Weak pulse

Common causes of Breathing problems

Breathing problems can be linked to congenital or acquired conditions. Common causes include:

  • Congenital/anatomical abnormality
  • Trauma
  • Infectious agent(bacteria, virus, fungus)
  • Immune-mediated hypersensitivity
  • Irritating substances like smoke or dust particles
  • Degenerative change
  • Diet
  • Other chronic diseases

Breathing Health Care Tips and Problem Prevention

As a responsible pet parent, there are some things you can do to help protect your furbaby from breathing problems and maximize his quality of life.

  • Schedule regular health checks for your dog
  • Stay up-to-date on vaccinations
  • Feed your dog a well-balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight
  • Walk or restrain your dog with a chest harness
  • Keep brachycephalic breeds inside during hot/humid weather
  • Avoid strenuous exercise if you have a brachycephalic dog
  • Avoid known allergens

The Final Woof

Various respiratory conditions can affect dogs during their lifetimes. Some problems like BOAS and congenital diaphragmatic hernias can be present from birth. Other issues including tracheal collapse, usually occur later in life. Understanding common conditions and knowing major symptoms can help you recognize problems early. There are also things you can do to try to prevent trouble and improve your furbaby’s quality of life.

Photo of author
Dr. Libby Guise earned her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1994. After working in private practice in Wisconsin for two years, she joined the USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer. In 2011, Libby came home to focus on raising and teaching her adoptive daughter. She lives in Wisconsin with her daughter, husband, and two furbabies: Charis, a lab-mix rescue pup, and Chesed, a Springer Spaniel.

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