Q: I have a 10 year old Labrador who has been breathing very heavily over the past several months, especially with the warm weather this summer. He seems to really struggle to catch his breath, and is making a lot of noise breathing even when resting. Is this something to worry about, and should I bring him in to my veterinarian?
A: Difficulty breathing is a serious clinical sign that often demands immediate veterinary attention. The most common cause of persistent loud or heavy breathing in older medium to large breed dogs is laryngeal paralysis—this is a degenerative neurologic disease that leads to progressive dysfunction of the larynx, or voice box. Not only can this lead to subtle changes in your dog’s ability to bark, but more importantly his or her ability to breathe comfortably.
Normally, small cartilages act as gates in the back of your dog’s throat, directing air down the windpipe (trachea) into the lungs when breathing, and directing food and water down the esophagus to the stomach when swallowing. If these cartilage “gates” are not working normally, your dog may breath much louder even when at rest, or even gag or choke when eating and drinking. The noisy breathing is often exacerbated with exercise or warm humid temperatures. Having this disease would be similar to a human trying to breathe entirely through a straw, as the amount of air and oxygen passing into the lungs is severely restricted.
Prompt evaluation by a veterinarian is critical in assessing your dog’s health status. A sedated upper airway examination to directly visualize the larynx is necessary to confirm the suspected diagnosis. Surgery is the recommended treatment option, and consists of a “tie-back” procedure, or unilateral arytenoid lateralization. The procedure permanently opens one of the cartilage gates to allow for easier breathing. Complications are uncommon and include aspiration pneumonia, or progression of neurologic problems. The majority of dogs recover well from this surgery and typically live relatively normal lives.
About the Vet: Dr. Steve Baker obtained his undergraduate degree and doctorate in veterinary medicine at Michigan State University, followed by a small animal internship at the University of Pennsylvania and surgical residency at Kansas State University. He is currently a board-certified small animal surgeon at Animal Emergency and Treatment Centers in Grayslake, Illinois (aetcenter.com).