It can be terrifying for a dog owner to watch their canine companion breathing hard and struggling to catch their breath. It is especially stressful when it happens for unknown reasons. So here are 30 potential reasons for a dog breathing hard, as well as details about each cause of this condition and what to do about it.
1. Acid-Based Disorders
In order for a dog’s organs to work properly, their blood has to maintain a certain pH balance (or acidity level). There are a wide-variety of medical conditions that can disrupt a dog’s pH balance, making their blood too acidic or alkaline. One disorder that can affect dog’s pH balance is metabolic acidosis, a condition that occurs when the dog’s body produces too much acid and/or can’t remove it normally.
One of the first warning signs that your dog has an acid-based disorder will be hard / heavy breathing. If you suspect and acid-based disorder is affecting your dog, you will need to take the pup to the vet to have a blood test performed, as a blood-gas analysis and chemistry panel are needed to determine if your dog has an acid-based disorder.
As a dog ages, it naturally becomes more difficult for the dog to intake and absorb an adequate amount of oxygen into their lungs. Even nonstrenuous movements and a little amount of walking can cause an older dog to pant and breathe harder than a younger, healthier dog.
This condition causes a dramatic decrease in a dog’s red blood cells, which results in a reduced ability for these blood cells to carry oxygen to the dog’s lungs. To try to compensate, the dog’s lungs must work harder, causing the dog to breathe hard. One sign of anemia in dogs is white or pale gums.
If you see signs of this condition in your dog, you should take the dog to an emergency vet clinic immediately, as a blood transfusion may be needed, to give the vet time to determine and treat the causes of the dog’s anemia. You can read more about this topic in the Merck Veterinary Manual: Anemia in Dogs.
4. Anxiety / Stress
Dogs suffer from anxiety and stress, just like humans do. When a dog is anxious or stressed, they will go into “flight or fight” mode, resulting in a rush of cortisol and adrenaline to their system, which can cause rapid breathing. If the dog is showing other signs of anxiety or stress such as trembling, cowering, hiding, ears back, tail tucked, lip licking, pacing, or avoiding eye-contact, the reason for the heavy breathing could be anxiety or stress.
Stress and anxiety that occurs often, and for extended periods of time can harm your dog physically and emotionally, shorten their lifespan, and negatively impact their quality of life, overall. Therefore, it is important that dog owners identify causes of stress and/or anxiety in their dogs, and treat / eliminate these causes. Licensed dog behaviorists and vets can assist a dog owner in treating canine anxiety and stress disorders. Read more about various causes of and treatments for stress in dogs in this roundtable discussion among a multitude of highly qualified vets: Alleviating Anxiety.
Dogs can also suffer from asthma. In the world of veterinary medicine this condition is commonly called eosinophilic bronchopneumopathy. Wheezing, rapid breathing, a persistent and severe cough, often followed by gagging or retching are common signs that a dog has asthma. Severity of asthma in dogs ranges from minor symptoms that appear occasionally, and are non-life threatening, to very serious, critical and life-threatening symptoms.
If a dog suffers from a severe form of this condition, a vet will often prescribe an antimicrobial prescription, followed by a steroid prescription. Pet owners who have dogs that suffer from this condition must remove all environmental allergenic triggers from their pet’s life, such as cigarette smoke, aerosol deodorizers and perfumes, dusty areas, carpet (especially if it’s old and unclean), and any particulate matter in bedding (straw, cedar chips, sawdust).
Heavy or hard breathing in dogs can be a primary sign of fear-aggression related behaviors. If your dog has random occurrences of heavy-breathing, watch out for other signs that the dog is scared of something or someone, (such as cowering, ears back, tail tucked or pointed straight out, pacing, snarling, and any kind of abnormal behavior). Address the dog’s fear with a certified dog behaviorist, and/or veterinarian, in order to endure that the dog’s fear doesn’t become worse, which could cause the dog to become aggressive.
7. Canine Cognitive Disorder
This is the canine form of what is commonly known as dementia in humans. This disorder can appear in older dogs, and one of the symptoms is the dog becoming confused, which seems to be especially bad at night. The confusion can cause the dog to become distressed and therefore breath hard.
If you suspect your dog might be suffering from canine cognitive disorder, please see a licensed veterinarian in order to discuss how you can help your dog. Learn more about this disorder from Veterinary Information Network (VIN): Canine Dementia.
8. Collapsing Trachea (trachea / windpipe problems)
Occurs when a dog’s trachea (windpipe) isn’t hard enough, and therefore, collapses each time the dog takes a breath. Small breeds of dogs such as Yorshire terriers and poodles, as well as Chihuahuas are especially susceptible. One treatment for this condition is having a surgery, in which a prosthetic support is placed around the dog’s trachea.
9. Cushing’s Syndrome
This disease, also called hyperadrenocorticism, occurs when a dog’s adrenal glands produce too much cortisol and cause an imbalance in a dog’s electrolytes, which will trigger panting and hard breathing. If a dog is excessively hungry and/or thirsty, gaining weight, losing hair, has a change in their skin color from pink to grey or black, has a protruding belly (pot-belly), or is irritable or restless, take the dog to the vet to have a blood test performed in order to determine if this disease (or diabetes, which has similar symptoms) might be present in the dog. Treatments will differ depending on the vet, and severity of the illness, but will often include surgery or adrenal-suppressants.
10. Eclampsia / Milk Fever
This is a dangerous condition that only effects nursing mothers of puppies, due to a sudden drop in blood calcium levels that causes heavy or hard breathing and panting in the mother dog, as well as tremors, weakness and/or an inability to walk or stand. If these symptoms appear is a dog that is nursing, call your vet right away.
Some vets will make house calls, and in this situation, it would be best to have a licensed vet come to your home (or to wherever the mother dog is), due to the fact that taking the mother dog away from her puppies would likely cause her even more stress, and worsen her heavy breathing.
11. Excess Weight
Obesity is a serious, and potentially life-threatening problem in dogs. The extra weight a dog carries puts a massive amount of strain on the dog’s body, specifically on their heart, respiratory system, and the joints of their body. If your dog pants and breathes heavy after an average amount of exercise, such as a short walk around the block, see your veterinarian so that the dog’s vet can prescribe special food and a stricter feeding program that will allow the dog to lose weight, in order to alleviate the dog’s discomfort and prevent more serious problems from occurring.
A dog will sometimes pant and breath harder in response to an exciting event, such as a loved one coming home after being gone for the day, or when the dog encounters another dog that it becomes excited about. As long as the hard breathing and panting behaviors stop shortly after the exciting event, your dog should be okay. Keep an eye on the dog for a bit, in order to make sure that the hard breathing was due to the excitement, and ceases shortly after the event. Healthy dogs should only pant briefly, before their breathing returns to normal.
13. Exercising Hard
Dogs pant and breathe hard in order to obtain more oxygen during and after exercise, and to cool themselves off. Because dogs do not sweat, panting and hard breathing are how they regulate their body temperature. If these body cooling behaviors do not calm down with a bit of rest time, and with moving the dog to a cooler location, the dog could be suffering from heatstroke, which is a very serious condition that must be treated immediately. On especially hot days, you should not exercise your dog outdoors, or go on long walks. Read more about heatstroke, below.
14. Heart Disease / Heart Failure
When a dog’s heart is negatively impacted by heart disease, it stops pumping properly which causes a decreased amount of oxygen to all of the dog’s vital organs, and sometimes also causes fluid to build-up in the dog’s lungs, which inhibits the exchange of gases into oxygen, causing a dog to breathe hard.
If a dog is coughing and breathing hard, especially if it gets worse when the dog is sleeping (laying down), these are signs of a heart condition. Also if a dog is more tired than usual, less interested in normal activities, gets out of breath easily, has a dry cough during or after exercise, eats less, pants a lot, and has a swollen abdominal area these can be signs of heart disease and congestive heart failure.
If any of these symptoms are present, it is a good idea to take the dog to a veterinary clinic to have a scan of his or her heart performed, in order to determine what is going on with the dog, so that the proper treatments can be administered. Treatment will depend on the severity of the condition, but can include medications such as diuretics and ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors, which widen and dilate blood-vessels.
15. Heartworm and Lungworm Parasitic Infections
These conditions occur when parasites move through a dog’s lungs and heart, resulting in tissue damage, enlargement of the heart, and interference with blood circulation, all of which could cause a dog to have shortness of breath, breathe harder than usual, become tired easily, have nose bleeds, cough up blood, have a build-up fluid in the abdomen and/or chest (lungs) and sudden death.
Heartworms are spread to dogs via mosquito bites. Preventative medications and methods are the best way to prevent a dog from getting heartworms and/or lungworms. Once a dog has them, the treatments to rid a dog of these parasites are often dangerous, complicated, costly, and can take many months of aggressive prescription medications, to clear up.
16. High Blood Pressure
This is a serious condition in dogs that can lead to blindness, kidney disease, kidney failure, and embolism, which are blood clots that can dislodge and lodge themselves into dangerous places, such as the dog’s brain, and cause death. There are numerous diseases that are associated with a dog having high blood pressure, as well as warning signs to watch out for, and treatments that can be administered.
17. High Thyroid Hormone Levels
Also called hyperthyroidism, this is one of the conditions that can cause high blood pressure in dogs, which in turn can cause a dog to breathe hard. Read more about the treatments for this condition in the following article published by VIN.
18. They're Hot
Heavy breathing and panting is normal behavior for a dog to display when he or she is outside, on a hot day. However, dogs should never be left in a car alone, even when temperatures outside are a cool 70 degrees F, the temperature in the car will heat up to a very dangerous degree, within 10 minute of being outside. And a dog should not be left outside for an extended period of time, or taken on a walk in temperatures of 90 degrees or above.
If your dog’s heavy breathing calms down shortly after entering a cooler area and resting, he or she should be okay. But if the panting remains constant and intense for an extended period of time, the dog seems to be in distress or restless, and/or if the dog’s gums are blue, purple, or white, these are signs that the dog is not getting enough oxygen and your vet should be called immediately, advises Dr. Amy Flowers (DVM). Or rush your pet to an emergency veterinary clinic if the dog’s condition seems dangerous.
Heatstroke is a very serious condition in dogs. The sooner you respond, the better the outcome. Because dogs pant (instead of sweating) in order to decrease their body heat, panting and breathing hard is normal behavior in dogs, to a certain extent and in certain situations, such as immediately following a lot of vigorous exercise. However, a dog should be able to cool down, fairly quickly. If not, heatstroke can occur and is often deadly to dogs.
Symptoms of heatstroke include glazed-over eyes, rapid heart rate, weakness, diarrhea, drooling, excessive thirst, bright or dark red / purple tinted tongue and gums, vomiting, seizures, and body temperatures above 104 degrees F.
If you think your dog is suffering from heatstroke, immediately move the dog to a cold location, wet the dog’s paws, submerge the dog in a bath of cool (not cold) water, or place ice packs and towels soaked in cold water on the dog’s head, chest, and neck, and offer the dog cool (not cold) water to drink or ice cubes to lick. Then, place the dog in an air conditioned vehicle and take the overheated dog to the vet in order to determine if there is a need for further treatments.
It is always best to prevent heatstroke, rather than treat it, because once these symptoms are present, damage to the dog’s organs and cells has likely already began.
20. Injury / Pain
Unfortunately, dogs cannot verbally tell us when they are in pain. But there are signs that a dog can give, to let us know that they are injured and in pain, such as licking and/or biting at the area that hurts, dilated pupils, diminished appetite, restless behaviors, anxiety, unwillingness to lay down, whining, crying, not wanting to be touched, or limping.
However, many dogs will mask their pain, and display normal behaviors, such as wagging their tail and wanting to be touched. Internal injuries may also be difficult to see signs of. If you believe your pet is injured or in any kind of pain, take them to see a vet, as soon as you can. The sooner the source of the pain is located and treated, the better the outcome will often be.
21. Kennel Cough
This bacterial or viral infection is extremely contagious and easily passed between animals. It irritates a dog’s airway (windpipe), causing it to become especially sensitive, and as a result, makes it difficult for the dog to breathe. If caught soon enough, in the first and mild stages, antibiotics and limited exercise will often clear up kennel cough.
22. Laryngeal Paralysis
This occurs when the laryngeal cartilages at the opening of a dog’s windpipe (the larynx) are unable to fully open, resulting in a limited amount of air being able to reach the dog’s lungs, causing it to be difficult for the dog to breathe, which leads to hard and rapid breathing. One sign of this condition can be a honking noise, similar to the sound that a goose makes, being emitted by a dog as he or she tries to breathe, and/or raspy panting.
Take your dog to a vet in order to discuss your options, one of which might be a surgery called the laryngeal tie-back operation. Read more about this condition in Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs, written by two DVM’s and published by VCA Hospitals.
Certain kinds of medications, especially pain medications and prednisone, are known to cause a dog’s respiratory rate (rate of breathing) to increase, causing the dog to pant and breathe harder than usual. If a dog doesn’t seem to be in distress or behaving oddly, and is able to get enough oxygen, it is usually okay to let this side-effect pass, as the medication wears off. Call your vet to see if any medications your dog has been given could be causing this side effect, and always monitor your dog closely for any changes or signs of distress.
If a dog is nauseous due to an illness, something they ate, or having motion sickness from being in a vehicle, the dog will often breathe hard as a side-effect of their nausea. If a dog is also vomiting or having diarrhea, do not offer the dog any food for a bit of time and offer small amounts of water or flavorless Pedialyte to help replace the dog’s electrolytes.
If the vomiting or diarrhea lasts longer than four hours, take the dog to the nearest emergency veterinary clinic. If your dog suffers from motion sickness, there are a wide-variety of natural, and commercially-sold remedies available. Also, some medications might make a dog feel nauseous, if your dog is taking any kind of medication, call your vet to see if it might be the cause of the nausea, and ask your dog’s vet what they recommend you do to help your pet.
25. Pressure on Trachea
Pressure on a dog’s trachea (also called a windpipe) can be caused by an abscess, tumor, or enlarged lymph node, all of which would need to be assessed and treated by a vet. However, excess pressure on a dog’s trachea can also be caused by a choke chain (and other forms of training collars).
This is why it's often recommended to switch to dog harnesses because some of these collars can cause grave injury to a dog, and are commonly not recommended for use by veterinarians, professional dog trainers, and behaviorists. In order to prevent tracheal injuries, use a harness instead of attaching a leash to a collar. Signs of a trachea injury include reduced appetite, drinking more water than usual, and inability to bark.
A side-effect of a dog ingesting any number of poisonous foods, plants, or substances (such as cleaning supplies or human medications) can be heavy breathing and panting, in addition to increased heart rate, excessive drooling, and abnormal behavior. If you believe your dog may have ingested something that is poisonous, rush the dog to the nearest emergency veterinary clinic to be treated, especially if the dog is behaving differently, seems nauseous, or is having diarrhea, and/or vomiting.
27. Respiratory Infections and Diseases
An infection in a dog’s chest and lungs, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, can cause fluid build-up in the lungs, resulting in a dog having difficulty breathing. If a dog has a dry-cough that might also cause gagging and retching, this could be bronchitis, and if the dog has a wet-cough, is behaving differently, eating less, sleeping a lot, or running a fever, the dog could have pneumonia.
Lung cancer, although less common, does occur in dogs and lung tumors can cause a dog’s lungs to stop working properly, resulting in wheezing, coughing up blood or mucus, and labored breathing.
For any of the above symptoms, a dog should be taken to an emergency veterinary clinic to be treated for their condition, which will usually include a round of antibiotic prescription medication, and anything else the vet may need to do, based on the diagnosis, and severity of each case.
Dogs can contract long-term bacterial infections in their nostrils and sinuses, which is called rhinitis. If a dog is sneezing, has a runny nose and is licking their nose often, take the dog to see a licensed vet as soon as possible. While this condition is not life-threatening, the sooner it is treated, the quicker it will be cleared up.
29. Short-Snouted and Squished-Face Breeds
Breathing hard is common in brachycephalic breeds, which is the name used for “flat-faced” breeds of dogs such as English bulldogs, French bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Pugs, and Pekingese.
The breathing condition that these breeds commonly have is called Brachycephalic Syndrome and according to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, the term Brachycephalic Syndrome “refers to the combination of elongated soft palate (interferes with movement of air into lungs), stenotic nares (deformed nostrils, obstruct airflow), and everted laryngeal saccules (large tonsils, obstruct airflow), all of which are commonly seen in the breeds listed above, and cause long-term breathing difficulties in these dogs that put them at a significantly higher risk for heatstroke, because they cannot pant correctly.
If the dog’s breathing is dangerously interfered with, and/or if this condition causes a dog distress, various forms of surgery can be performed to help remedy the condition and the negative impacts it can cause. Read more about this topic in the following article, Brachycephalic Syndrome, published by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.
30. Tick-Borne Diseases
There is a plethora of dangerous diseases that ticks can transmit to dogs, due to the fact that ticks feed on the blood of a multitude of disease-infected creatures, then attach to a dog and feed on their blood, transferring blood within the tick into the dog, including: Canine Ehrilichiosis, Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Canine Babesiosis, Canine Anaplasmosis, Canine Bartonellosis, and Canine Hepatozoonosis.
The best way to prevent this from occurring is to take as many measures as are necessary to keep ticks off of your dog. Even still, it is not always possible to prevent a tick from attaching to your dog, and in cases in which you suspect your dog may have been bit by a tick, and had a disease given to them, one of the very first signs of many of these illnesses will be an increased breathing rate and fever. If your dog displays either of these symptoms and has been in an area that has ticks, take the dog to be examined by a vet, as soon as possible.