Difficulty Breathing (Dyspnea) in Dogs

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Last updated on
2 min read

Key takeaways

Difficulty breathing (dyspnea) is always cause for concern. Any dog who suddenly exhibits this symptom needs emergency medical care.

  • Brachycephalic dogs are more susceptible to dyspnea, due to their short muzzles, narrow nares (nostrils), and elongated soft palates, which impair normal breathing
  • Many conditions can cause dyspnea, such as congestive heart failure, brachycephalic airway syndrome, heatstroke, respiratory infections, cancer, and a variety of other illnesses and injuries
  • Physical examination, blood work, and x-rays may be sufficient to provide a diagnosis for dyspneic dogs; some require advanced diagnostic imaging
  • Oxygen therapy or more aggressive ventilatory support to meet the dog’s oxygen needs is the direct treatment; further treatment depends on the underlying cause
  • Prognosis depends on the underlying cause
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A closer look: Difficulty Breathing (Dyspnea) in Dogs

Difficulty breathing, or dyspnea, is an extremely concerning symptom in dogs. A dog who becomes dyspneic requires emergency medical care.

Dogs with chronic conditions that interfere with normal respiration may experience some degree of dyspnea on an ongoing basis, as the therapeutic goal may be merely to optimize the dog’s ability to breathe.

Possible causes

Dyspnea occurs with many medical conditions that interfere with the normal process of breathing.

Dyspnea may occur as a result of an injury or foreign object (e.g., choking) affecting any part of the dog’s breathing apparatus.

Risk factors

Dyspnea can occur in dogs of any age, size, or breed. Some breeds, like the Cavalier spaniels, are predisposed to heart failure as they age, and dyspnea may be the first obvious symptom.

Mild dyspnea can be subtle and difficult to detect, especially if the dog normally makes a lot of noise while breathing, like most brachycephalic dogs.

Testing and diagnosis

Dogs with severe dyspnea may require stabilization upon arriving at the veterinary hospital. In these cases, oxygen supplementation is prioritized over performing diagnostic testing.

Testing for the condition causing dyspnea typically starts with:

  • Physical exam
  • Pulse oximetry: a measure of oxygen present in the blood
  • Comprehensive blood work, including a heartworm test
  • Chest x-rays
  • ECG: a measure of electrical impulses in the heart

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Associated symptoms


Roger Gfeller, DVM, DACVECC; Michael Thomas, DVM; Isaac Mayo; The VIN Emergency Medicine Consultants - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP - Writing for Veterinary Partner
No Author - Writing for Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
OVRS Staff - Writing for Oakland Veterinary Referral Services
JEAN MARIE BAUHAUS - Writing for Hill's Pet Nutrition
E. Mazzaferro, MS, DVM, PhD, DACVECC - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Claire R. Sharp BSc, BVMS (Hons), MS, DACVECC - Writing for Today's Veterinary Practice

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