Rapid Breathing (Tachypnea) in Dogs

Key Takeaways

Rapid breathing (also called tachypnea, polypnea, or shortness of breath) is characterized by sustained periods of short, frequent breaths. 

• Normal panting may be differentiated from tachypnea because tachypnea doesn’t always occur with the mouth open and tends to persist when there is no apparent reason for panting, such as during sleep

Tachypnea accompanied by other symptoms of respiratory distress is easier to recognize, but even as a single symptom it indicates a medical emergency

• It is important that the cause be identified and treated promptly because of the severity and range of potential underlying conditions

• Diagnosis of the underlying condition consists of physical examination, bloodwork, and diagnostic imaging

• Care during treatment frequently involves oxygen therapy to lessen symptoms, while treatment and prognosis vary depending on the condition causing the tachypnea

A Closer Look: What is Rapid Breathing in Dogs?

Respiratory rates vary from dog to dog and are affected by many external causes, so tachypnea as a single symptom can be difficult to identify. Additionally, a healthy dog’s respiratory rate is quite high whenever the dog is panting. To determine if a dog’s respiratory rate is abnormally high, it must be measured while the dog is at rest or sleeping. A dog’s normal resting respiratory rate is usually less than 30 breaths per minute. Any time a dog’s respiratory rate is consistently over 30 breaths per minute while the dog is sleeping, veterinary attention is indicated.   Tachypnea that is persistent or getting worse warrants emergency veterinary attention, especially if it is accompanied by other symptoms.

Possible Causes

Tachypnea is associated with a multitude of underlying conditions that directly affect the respiratory apparatus: 

• Infections of upper or lower airways (bacterial, viral, fungal) • Pulmonary edema from congestive heart failure

• Pain • Brachycephalic syndrome • Heartworm disease • Collapsing trachea • Hypoplastic trachea

• Tumors/cancer • Pleural effusion • Pneumothorax • Hemothorax • Chylothorax • Diaphragmatic hernia

Tachypnea is also a primary symptom of pain and stress in dogs, and is associated with painful conditions such as

OsteoarthritisCushing’s disease

Tachypnea also occurs with any illness that lowers the pH of the blood:

• Kidney disease • Diabetes mellitus • Ethanol and other toxicoses • Addison’s disease

Risk Factors

Tachypnea is caused by many illnesses and situations, so the severity and concern warranted also varies. Tachypnea can be caused by environmental factors such as stress, exhaustion, or heat, or be a signifier of a more serious underlying cause such as a tumor, toxicosis, or severe lung disease. 

Brachycephalic breeds are predisposed to tachypnea, but dogs of any age and breed can present with this symptom.

Testing and Diagnosis

Identifying the area of distress is crucial to diagnosing the cause of tachypnea. 

When no respiratory distress is present, the source of tachypnea may be unrelated to the respiratory system.

Diagnostics include: 

• Physical exam • Blood work • Diagnostic imaging

Due to the many potential causes of tachypnea, treatment varies greatly depending on the underlying condition. 

Supportive care during treatment frequently includes oxygen therapy.

Similar symptoms

Dyspnea is often seen alongside tachypnea, but their causes are not always related. Dyspnea is difficulty breathing, while tachypnea is an increased rate of breathing.

Associated Symptoms

Other symptoms often seen alongside tachypnea include:

CoughingLethargy • Decreased appetite • Vomiting  • DiarrheaLabored breathing

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