Panting is a normal part of being a dog, but may be a small symptom of a big problem.
By Stacy E. Smith
You don’t even have to own a dog to know that they pant. Dog owners are accustomed to the sight of their dog with his/her tongue hanging out and breathing harder or faster than usual. It’s normal, especially if Fido has been exerting himself or it’s hot outside.
Panting is essentially a dog’s evaporative cooling system. I think we’re all aware that dogs don’t sweat like we do, but they’re able to cool down when their mouth is open and their shallow, rapid breathing increases the air flow to the mucous membranes of the mouth and respiratory tract. In a nutshell, that process effectively cools the dog down and lowers his body temperature.
Additionally, dogs that are too fat will over heat more easily, making them more prone to panting. Dogs with pushed in faces and short nasal passages (Brachycephalic) such as Pugs, Bulldogs and Pekingese also tend to pant more and overheat easier than dogs with “normal” snouts. All of these things are considered normal, but if the reason includes obesity, you should really consider a weight loss program for your dog – it is a health risk.
There are several reasons that dogs pant; some are uneventful and no cause for concern; for example, after exertion, exposure to heat, excitement, anxiety or following a stressful event. However, there are other reasons that dogs pant that should cause concern and may warrant investigation by a vet.
If a dog is panting in absence of any of the above triggering events you should pay close attention. Unexplained and excessive panting may indicate that there is some sort of health problem, especially if the dog appears to be in distress. Let’s explore some of those causes (in no particular order)…
This may be one of the most common causes of unexplained panting in dogs. There are several disorders that fall into this category that affect the upper and lower airways and interfere with breathing: disorders of the voice box (panting will be loud), nasopharyngeal polyps, collapsing trachea, fluid in the lungs or chest, asthma and cancer. If your dog has a bluish tint to his gum instead of the usual, healthy pink color it is a pretty good indicator of severe respiratory distress.
Nauseous dogs tend to pant and may also eat grass – it usually facilitates vomiting (which we all know makes us feel better if we’re nauseous). Panting is often also seen with abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. One of our dogs has a really sensitive stomach and I always know when he has a stomach ache – he pants pretty hard. Be aware that vomiting a lot, continuous diarrhea, or both, may cause dehydration (just like it does with people). A quick test to see how dehydrated a dog is can be done by pulling up the skin in between the shoulder blades. Notice how fast it springs back; if it springs back right away it’s probable that your dog is sufficiently hydrated. If there is a delay or worse remains lifted, your dog is dehydrated and you should call your vet. Even if hydration doesn’t seem like an issue, contact your vet if the vomiting and/or diarrhea lasts longer than a day.
Dogs in pain may pant. Finding the source of pain, however, can be challenging. Senior dogs may have joint pain or the pain may be abdominal such as in dogs suffering from pancreatitis (we know all about that here – both canine and human). Whether you can find the cause of your dog’s discomfort, call your vet if it doesn’t seem to subside in a reasonable period of time.
If your dog has been in the heat and appears to be not only panting, but weak, has dark red gums, he may have hyperthermia, more commonly known as heat stroke. Call your vet or emergency vet clinic immediately! A dog with heat stroke will have a high rectal temperature (*normal rectal temperature is between 100.5° F and 102.5° F) and needs to be cooled quickly in a tub of cool water, making sure the dog gets wet near the belly and inside of legs. He will need to be seen by a vet as soon as possible.
Because fever causes an elevated body temperature, a dog may pant because he’s over heating just as he would if he were outside on a hot day. Dogs have a fever when his *rectal temperature is over 102.5° F. Cool sponges pressed on the dog’ s paws, abdominal area and armpits may help cool the dog a bit and lower the fever. However, a dog with a fever should be seen by a vet.
SIDE EFFECTS FROM MEDICATIONS
Dogs taking steroids like Prednisone may tend to have temporary panting episodes along with increased drinking and increased urination. Opiods may cause your dog to pant as well. Exposure to toxins, chemicals and poisons may also lead to panting episodes along with other worrisome symptoms of toxicity. Consult with your vet or poison control immediately.
If your dog is having trouble breathing, seems tired and is having coughing episodes (sometimes worse in the night), heart disorders such as cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure or heart murmurs. Another cause could be a parasite like heartworms.
Hypothyroidism (a disorder of low thyroid levels) can cause panting episodes. The disorder can be corrected with medications – one of our dogs has it and is doing really well on her meds. Another possibility is Cushing’s disease, (sometimes seen in dogs that have been given long term steroid medications). In this case you might see a pot belly and distinct episodes of panting.
Panting may be a symptom of anemia as it will cause your dog to feel weak and tired. A dog with pale gums usually strongly suggests anemia. Severe cases may require immediate care and possibly a blood transfusion. Obviously you’ll know if your dog is bleeding profusely from an external laceration, but the bleeding may not be visible and could be happening internally.
There are lots of things that cause panting in dogs. Hopefully this list will give you a little more information that may help you promptly recognize signs of trouble before they get worse and cause further complications (or worse). The information here is not intended to be used as a diagnostic tool nor as a substitute for veterinary advice. If your pet is ill ALWAYS seek your vet’s advice.
*A note about taking your pet’s temperature…
Your dog’s normal rectal temperature is 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher temperatures may necessitate a trip to your veterinarian, depending on other symptoms. Feeling the ears, nose or head is not considered a reliable method; you have to determine your dog’s internal temperature to find out for certain. This can be done using an oral or rectal thermometer, either digital or mercury. Ear thermometers can also be used in dogs. They are generally fast and easy but it is essential to use a proper technique to obtain an accurate temperature reading.
Instructions for Rectal Temperatures
Some dogs will allow you to take their temperature, but others don’t like it at all. It might be easier if you get another person to assist by holding your dog. Then do the following:
If using a mercury thermometer, remember to shake it with a quick flick of the wrist until the mercury is below 94 degrees. Then lubricate the thermometer with petroleum jelly, KY jelly or other water-based lubricant.
Have your helper hold the head and front part of the body by tightly hugging your dog.
Lift the tail and insert the thermometer slowly and carefully into the rectum, located just below the base of the tail. Insert the thermometer about 1 inch and hold in place – two minutes for mercury thermometers or until the digital thermometer beeps.
Remove the thermometer and read the temperature.
Instructions for Ear Temperatures
The normal Ear temperature in dogs is between 100.0 degrees and 103.0 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees and 39.4 degrees Celsius). The ear thermometer works by measuring infrared heat waves that come from the ear drum area. The ear drum is considered to be a good indicator of body temperature as it measures brain blood temperature. It is important to place the thermometer deep into the horizontal ear canal to obtain an accurate reading. An ear thermometer such as the Pet-Temp® designed for cats and dogs works best due to a longer arm that allows for the probe to be placed deeper into the ear canal. The first few times you use it, take both an ear and rectal temperature and compare. The results should be very close if you are using the proper ear technique.
If your dog has a body temperature less than 99 degrees or over 104 degrees, contact your veterinarian or local emergency facility immediately. A high temperature could mean your dog has an infection or heat-related illness. A temperature below normal can be just as serious, indicating other problems such as shock.