Collapsed Trachea in Dogs – Clinical Signs & Treatment

Picture of a Yorkshire Terrier

The trachea (also known as the windpipe) is an essential tube that connects the lungs to the rest of the upper respiratory tract, meaning the larynx, the pharynx, and the mouth and the nose cavity.

The trachea is composed of rings, and if they modify their shape or lose their strength, the dog is not going to be able to breathe properly. Tracheal collapse can be life-threatening, so it’s important to know how to distinguish it from other respiratory problems.

In today’s article, we’re looking at the common causes of tracheal collapse in dogs, its risk factors, the clinical signs that can be distinguished in this case, as well as how it is diagnosed and treated.

What causes a tracheal collapse in dogs?

The vast majority of tracheal issues in our canine friends is congenital, which means that the pups are born with them. Tracheal collapse is a progressive health issue, in general, which means that you will notice a variety of symptoms as the condition worsens.

If you are wondering whether there is any breed predisposition, we’ll tell you that it’s true — there are breeds more predisposed to developing this problem. These are:

  • Pomeranians
  • Poodles
  • Chihuahuas
  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Shih Tzus
  • Lhasa Apsos

It’s also worth noting that tracheal collapse mostly affects middle-aged to senior dogs, so it shows up between the ages of 5 and 6 to 14 years. That doesn’t mean that it can’t affect younger dogs, too, especially if they were born with a tracheal defect.

It seems that there are some risk factors, too. Dogs that suffer from chronic respiratory problems, those that have developed heart disease, or those that are overweight or obese are more prone to developing a collapsed trachea than others. The same goes for pets that have Cushing’s disease or whose guardians smoke, and they’re exposed to the cigarette smoke.

Clinical signs

One of the typical symptoms that you can notice in a dog that has a collapsed trachea is a dry cough that resembles the sound that some geese make when honking.

It’s also typical for the animals to start coughing whenever they are being handled, their thorax is pressed or held tight, or someone pulls their lead too strong. In general, dogs that have breathing problems should never be walked with a collar — you should use a comfortable harness instead.

Here are some other symptoms you can see in a dog that suffers from tracheal collapse:

  • Exercise intolerance
  • Difficult breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Fainting
  • Wheezing when breathing after a strenuous activity
  • A dry cough after the dog got excited

The cough can also show up when the weather is too hot or humid or right after the pet had a sizable meal or drank a lot of water.

In dogs whose cough becomes too powerful, you might notice retching or vomiting. Any type of activity that makes it harder for the pooch to breathe can result in him turning blue and collapsing.

How is a collapsed trachea in dogs diagnosed?

If you take your dog to the vet clinic and he or she suffers from tracheal collapse, one of the first things that can reveal it is a simple physical examination. Since you, as the pet owner, will inform the veterinarian that your pooch is experiencing breathing problems and coughing, the vet will examine your dog’s upper respiratory tract.

If light pressure is applied to the pet’s trachea, it’s very likely that a coughing episode will occur.

The physical examination is not enough for a clear diagnosis, however. For this reason, the vet will recommend additional tests such as X-rays or a bronchoscopy, both of which can reveal the flattened tracheal rings or any modification of their shape.

The imaging examination (the X-ray) can also rule out other conditions. The type of cough that dogs with tracheal collapse experience can be similar to that of animals that have congestive heart failure, so differential diagnosis is of utmost importance in this case.

Treatment of collapsed trachea in dogs

There are two types of therapies currently available for tracheal collapse in dogs. One of them involves the use of medications, which we will detail below, and the other involves surgery performed on the trachea.

Several medications can be used to alleviate the symptoms of the condition, but it’s important to note that they do not solve the issue on the whole. They merely make the clinical expressions better, meaning that the dog doesn’t feel like he/she is suffocating while coughing. Here are some examples of medications used for this:

  • Bronchodilators
  • Anti-inflammatories (corticosteroids)
  • Cough suppressants
  • Light sedatives (such as butorphanol or acepromazine)

While symptom management does improve the dog’s life, it will not cure the disease. Severe tracheal collapse can only be treated using surgery. During the operation, there could be plastic rings placed around the trachea’s exterior so that the air flows better through it. Another option involves placing a stent inside the trachea so that it remains open at all times.

Following ring or stent placement, you will have to give your dog medications for inflammation, pain, and cough. For approximately two weeks, you will also have to keep your dog’s activity to a minimum. This means that you will have to use a harness and take your dog out for light walks in the morning and evening, but only for a limited amount of time.

Avoid taking your dog to the woods or to the park or on hikes if you know that he or she is likely to get over-excited. During the first one to two weeks following the surgery, you will have to take your pooch to the vet for check-ups just to make sure that the sutures or staples are in perfect shape.

Prognosis

About 70% of the dogs that have a collapsed trachea and that are treated only with medication have a good chance of experiencing at least some improvement. Ring placement via an operation results in at least 75% of improvement in all cases. Stents are even better, with over 90% of dogs experiencing significant improvement.

In dogs that are older than 6 to 7 years of age, the prognosis may be poorer. Older dogs are usually managed only with medication, especially if they have other chronic diseases that make it impossible for them to undergo the operation.

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Cristina Vulpe PhD

Cristina Vulpe PhD

With a PhD in Veterinary Oncology, Dr. Cristina Vulpe loves researching and writing about the things that she’s passionate about. These range from animal nutrition and welfare to pet behavior, infectious diseases, and parasitology. In her spare time, she’s always in the company of her cat and a good book.

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