I’ve worked many years as an emergency vet so I’ve seen dogs being rushed to the hospital in all sorts of situations. One of the most frightening things to witness as an owner, is seeing your dog having any sort of breathing difficulties. Whether they are heavily panting, choking or gasping for breath, I would always advise you seek immediate treatment.
Most dogs will breathe normally when they are resting or sleeping and this is always a good time to count your dogs breaths per minute to get a good idea of their normal respiratory rate. Watching their chest rise and fall once counts as one breath. In dogs with no health problems, this should be below 40 breaths per minute.
It’s always a good idea to assess the colour of your dogs’ gums so that you can identify what’s normal. Lift up the upper lip and look at the gums around the upper teeth. When your dog is breathing normally and getting enough oxygen to the tissues, the gums will be a nice salmon pink colour.
The reasons for respiratory distress can vary but it’s often due to an underlying medical condition such as heart disease, lung disease, pain, shock or problems with the structures in the upper airway e.g. larynx or trachea. If you know your dog has a condition that can cause respiratory signs then seek veterinary help immediately. It’s critical to get your dogs breathing, and the underlying condition under control as quickly as possible.
Before you call the vet I would always recommend that you quickly assess the dog to give the vet as much information as possible. Take a respiratory rate (breaths per minute) and quickly assess the dogs gum colour. If your dog is struggling to get oxygen then the gums will change colour and become pale or dark purple/ blue.
The only time I would advise you to take action yourself is when you know your dog may have something stuck in the mouth or throat. You need to act quickly and remain calm but if your dog is choking you need to try and clear the object as quickly as possible. If you can see the object then try and remove it but don’t put your hand in the dog’s mouth. You risk getting bitten and pushing the object further down the throat. Instead pull the tongue forwards and using your fingers or a pen try and flick the object out of the mouth in a sideways motion. If you cannot see the object you may be able to dislodge the object using an abdominal thrust manoeuvre.
In large dogs you would stand behind your dog and place your arms around their body. Make a fist with one hand, and place it against your dog’s abdomen just where the sternum ends. With the other hand, grasp your fist and push upward and forward (toward the dog’s shoulders), suddenly and forcefully. Repeat 4-5 times and check the airway.
With a smaller dog you would hold the dog up with their spine against your chest give four or five rapid thrusts inward and upward and check the airway to see if the object is dislodged. If you can’t remove the object then make your way to the nearest vets as quickly and as safely as possible.
Heat stress or heat stroke is another common problem and I’ve seen this a lot in hot weather, during outdoor events and particularly in brachycephalic (flat faced breeds). Dogs can't sweat like humans and only have sweat glands in their feet and nose. This makes them far less efficient at cooling themselves down so panting is your dogs’ way of bringing their temperature down. They can also pant if they are excited or if they’ve just done strenuous exercise but their breathing should return to normal pretty quickly.
If it doesn’t and the panting gets heavier, or the signs develop into excessive drooling or becoming ‘wobbly’ on the legs then your dog could be becoming dangerously overheated. You should move them into a cool shaded area and wet their head and paws. Never put cold water on their body as you can induce shock. If they don’t calm down in a few minutes then get them to a veterinary practice as soon as possible.
Whilst breathing emergencies can be scary, it’s important to keep calm. Your dog will already be distressed, so you don’t want to heighten their anxiety by being panicked yourself. If it ever does occur always check the airway for obstructions, assess for heat stroke but otherwise get your dog to the vets.