Symptoms and Treatment of Asthma in Dogs

Aug 1, 2009Updated 8 months ago

Many dog owners will at some point observe wheezing or other breathing difficulties in their pet, causing them to wonder, "Can my dog get asthma?" or, "What are the symptoms of asthma in a dog?"

Dogs can get asthma, just like humans. Other pets, including cats, can get asthma as well; asthma is actually much more common in cats than in dogs.

Diagnosing a dog with asthma is fairly straightforward, though treating a dog's breathing problems can be more complex. Like treating human cases of asthma, dog owners must work with their veterinarian to find the precise combination of treatments and medications that will most effectively control the pet's asthma.

Causes and Symptoms of an Asthma Attack in a Dog

A dog's asthma attack can be triggered by allergies, irritants like cigarette smoke or dust, dry air, exercise, and other forms of exertion, like barking. When the dog's asthma is irritated, the bronchi — the airway passages that extend down into the lungs — begin to excrete mucus and bronchi spasms occur, making breathing difficult as the dog's airway narrows due to inflammation and constriction.

The constricted, inflamed and mucus-filled bronchi make it difficult for the asthmatic dog to breathe. A dog with asthma may exhibit the following symptoms during an attack:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Panting
  • Blue colored gums
  • Respiratory distress
It's also common for a dog with asthma to refuse to drink or eat during an asthma attack; since breathing is difficult, the dog refuses food and drink, as this disrupts normal breathing. Even cases of less severe asthma can cause a dog to refuse to eat or drink. In a dog whose asthma is undiagnosed, the pet owner may be confused as to why their seemingly healthy dog is refusing food and water.

Diagnosing a Dog With Asthma

To diagnose a dog with asthma, pet owners must bring their dog to the veterinarian for an examination. Chest x-rays are a routine step in diagnosing a dog's asthma. Respiratory infections must be ruled out, as symptoms of a respiratory infection can be similar to the signs of asthma. For cases where there is an acute onset of asthma, the veterinarian will also want to check the dog for an obstruction in the airway; chest x-rays are an effective method of checking for obstructions.

Blood work is also a common diagnostic tool for a dog with asthma; this will also rule out infection and other problems, like heartworms. Heartworms and other cardiac problems can cause compression of the bronchi; this is why coughing is a common symptom of heart problems in dogs.

Dog owners should also keep a dog log, documenting exactly when the dog's asthma worsens or improves. A written log of the dog's condition can help the veterinarian spot patterns that can aid in pinpointing the cause of the dog's asthma. Perhaps the dog has an asthma attack every time he goes for a walk or maybe the dog has breathing problems on days when the pollen count is high. Whatever the case, a dog log can help make it easier to identify what's causing a dog's asthma attacks.

Treating a Dog's Asthma

The best treatment for a dog's asthma depends on the precise cause of the pet's breathing problems. Treatment for asthma in a dog is similar to the treatments that may be prescribed for a human with asthma.

Some of the treatments for asthma in a dog include the following:

  • Steroids – Steroid treatment for asthma helps reduce inflammation and the dog is less prone to asthma attacks. The dog's asthma often improves; with the asthma attacks being less severe.
  • Antihistamines – Antihistamine treatment for asthma in a dog is particularly effective in cases where allergies trigger canine asthma. The antihistamine makes the dog's body less likely to react to allergens.
  • Bronchodilators – Bronchodilator medications — like those found in inhalers that a human with asthma may use — are designed to treat inflammation, spasm and constriction of the dog's airway. Once the airway constriction has improved, the airway will be wider, making it easier for the dog to breathe.
  • Oxygen – When a dog has an asthma attack, the dog's body is deprived of oxygen. The asthma attack can trigger fear, causing the dog's body to tense and the heart rate increases. This makes breathing even more difficult because the dog's body requires even more oxygen. So oxygen treatments help the dog to receive more oxygen, enabling the dog more quickly recover from the asthma attack.
In the case of a dog with asthma that's triggered by seasonal allergies, antihistamines and steroids may be prescribed, whereas antihistamine treatment may not be effective in a dog with asthma that's triggered by exercise. Dog owners may also need to make lifestyle changes (i.e. not smoking indoors around the asthmatic dog or vacuuming and dusting frequently to reduce the amount of dust in the home.

Fortunately for dogs with asthma, this is a condition that is very manageable, though some degree of trial and error is often required when it comes to finding the best asthma treatment. If a pet owner suspects that their dog has asthma, a visit to the veterinarian will be required as soon as possible.