After a long trip to the dog park or on a particularly hot day, you may notice your dog panting more than usual. However, if this behavior continues even on cooler days or when your dog hasn’t been active, you may begin to wonder if there’s something wrong. There are several causes behind excessive panting in dogs, many of which warrant a trip to your vet for care. Read on to learn more about top causes, and what to do.
What Is Normal and What Is Excessive Panting?
Panting is the act of your dog opening their mouth and breathing heavily. You may see breath if they’re a bit overheated or it’s a cold day, and the tongue may hang out of the mouth to one side. Panting often occurs when your dog is excited, has been active, or is warm and trying to cool off.
Panting becomes abnormal, or excessive, when it occurs outside of the above circumstances. You may see your dog panting during the day when laying still, or when the weather isn’t very warm. Your dog’s respiration rate may increase to nearly 200 breaths per minute. You should be concerned if your dog is panting all the time, rapidly, or seems to be stressed out.
General Signs to Look Out For
There are other general signs you should look out for that indicate something may be wrong. These include signs of stress and agitation such as pacing or whining, hunching of the body to protect sore or painful parts, or changes in behavior. Other abnormal signs include excessive thirst or urination, vomiting, diarrhea, or changes in eating habits. If you see symptoms such as your dog struggling to breathe, or their tongue or gums are turning blue or pale, this is a medical emergency that should be treated immediately.
Excessive Panting — Causes
Here are some of the top causes of excessive panting in dogs, and what you can do:
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are some of the most common non-medical causes of excessive panting in dogs. Other signs of stress in a dog include pacing or moving about, whining or barking, avoiding or staring at the source of stress, destructive chewing, and other changes from your dog’s normal behavior. Stress and anxiety are usually diagnosed via exclusion of other medical issues in addition to noting the above signs. A veterinary visit can rule out any health-related issues causing excessive panting. Next, a consultation with a trainer or veterinary behaviorist can help determine the source of any stress or anxiety. From there, a trainer or behaviorist can work with you to address the source of the stress and reduce it.
Prevention is hard unless you know your dog is prone to stress or anxiety. Some situations, such as fireworks or thunder, may be more obvious. If your dog has a history of stress or anxiety, taking measures such as getting a prescription anti-anxiety medicine to give before stressful events can help. You can also provide a quiet, safe spot in a room away from noise or people.
Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion
With summer comes more outdoor activities and chances that a dog can become overheated or exhausted. Heatstroke and heat exhaustion happen when your dog is unable to cool themselves down enough in their environment. Signs included excessive panting (in an attempt to cool themselves), restlessness or extreme lethargy, disorientation, vomiting, or diarrhea. A very overheated dog may also try to seek out shade or gulp water. Diagnosis of heatstroke usually involves piecing together the above symptoms with a history of being in a hot environment for a long period of time.
Treatment depends on the severity of heatstroke. In minor cases, moving your dog to a shaded spot and misting them with cold water, wiping down fur with wet washcloths, or providing cool water can help. If symptoms are severe and causing disorientation or vomiting and diarrhea, a trip to the vet is best. Your vet will likely want to place an IV catheter in order to replace lost fluids quickly. They may also try to cool your dog down and address secondary symptoms.
Prevention of heatstroke is easiest. Make sure your dog has access to a cool, shaded area. Providing plenty of water, and using cooling bandanas or gear to protect feet and bodies from heat can help reduce the chances of heatstroke. Taking frequent breaks from activity on very hot days, or moving exercise to late evening or early morning can also help.
Pain is another common, but equally vague cause of excessive panting in dogs. Dogs that are in pain may not show immediate outward signs. Minor signs of stress such as panting, pacing, or changes in activity levels can be an indicator. A dog in more severe pain may favor a hurt limb, or walk with a hunch to protect their abdomen. Other signs of something wrong can include vomiting or diarrhea, changes in eating and drinking habits, and changes in behavior such as becoming more aggressive or withdrawn.
Pain is diagnosed via a thorough workup from your veterinarian to determine its cause. This can include a complete exam, bloodwork, X-rays or ultrasound, and other tests. Depending on the underlying cause of pain, your vet can provide a variety of treatments ranging from oral medications, to treatment of broken limbs, IV fluids and hospital stays for internal issues, and more.
It is hard to prevent pain, especially if the cause of the pain isn’t known. Make sure to check your dog for any injury after a hard play session. Keeping them on a healthy diet and avoiding people food or scraps and regular vet visits can also help.
Heart failure is another serious cause of excessive panting in dogs. A dog in heart failure may show several signs in addition to heavy panting such as exercise intolerance (quickly tiring out after minimal activity), coughing or gagging, vomiting, changes in eating and drinking habits, and trouble breathing. In severe cases, fluid buildup around the heart or lungs may cause swelling (edema) of the chest. Diagnosis of heart failure involves several tests. These include bloodwork and X-ray, EKG of the heart, and a full history such as age of your pet and any genetic conditions they may have.
Treatment depends on the severity and underlying causes of heart failure. It can range from daily medications to reduce swelling and inflammation, to hospital stays involving draining of fluids, or a trip to a specialist for additional care. Your vet may also recommend changes in your dog’s diet or activity to help prevent exacerbating the condition.
Prevention of heart failure can be difficult. It often occurs due to genetics in certain breeds, or due to age in senior dogs. However, regular veterinary exams, knowledge of breed health issues, good diet, and regular exercise can all help reduce chances or catch it in the early stages when it is most treatable.
Like heart failure, anemia in dogs can cause several similar symptoms, including excessive panting. Your dog may also become extremely tired or unwilling to move, may have pale or blue gums, and may be unable to eat or drink. General diagnosis of anemia involves bloodwork to check the packed cell volume (PCV). This is the percentage of red blood cells in the blood. If it is too low, the blood is unable to carry enough oxygen and other nutrients to cells. An increase in heart rate and decreased blood pressure are also clinical signs.
Anemia has many causes, each with its own involved diagnostic and treatment plans. This includes auto-immune mediated anemias, anemias caused by poor nutrition, kidney disease, ingestion of toxic items, infections, bone marrow issues, hormonal deficiencies, tumors, and more. Treatment of anemia depends on its cause.
Treating toxicity and stopping the immune system from overreacting and destroying blood cells can help reverse and stop anemia. In severe cases, hospitalization and blood transfusions may be needed to replace lost blood volume. For dogs with nonregenerative anemia, where the bone marrow isn’t creating enough blood cells or they’re being destroyed too quickly, medications to help boost production can help.
Anemia is hard to prevent since it has so many potential factors causing it. Avoiding potentially toxic items, knowing your dog’s genetic history, and avoiding accidents or illnesses that can result in blood loss may help. In addition, nutritional anemias can be avoided by feeding a quality, balanced diet.
Metabolic Disease (Cushing’s)
Some metabolic illnesses, namely Cushing’s Disease/Syndrome, can cause excessive panting. This is a metabolic illness that results from having too many corticosteroids produced in the body. It can be caused by long-term steroid medications such as prednisone, or tumors of the adrenal or pituitary glands. In addition to excessive panting, dogs may exhibit other signs. This includes increased thirst and urination, excessive hunger and binge eating, weight changes, changes to the skin and coat (hair loss, thinning, infection), and anxiety.
Diagnosis of Cushing’s involves an exam from your vet as well as specific bloodwork such as an ACTH stim test and low-dexamethasone suppression test. These measure the circulating levels of hormones in the body, as well as how the body responds to and produces it. Ultrasound or X-ray of the abdomen can also check for tumors causing excess hormone release. Treatment involves removal of tumors, medications to suppress hormone production, and treatment of secondary infections and symptoms.
Prevention is harder, as this disease can occur naturally in older dogs. However, long-term use of some steroid medications can cause iatrogenic (medication-caused) Cushing’s, and removal of or changing medications can help.
Mouth, Throat, and Lung Issues
Issues of the mouth, throat, or lungs can lead to excessive panting in dogs. This can be due to distress or anxiety from something in the respiratory passageways, pain caused by a tumor or blockage, or the inability to get enough oxygen from regular breathing. Other symptoms may include pawing at the face or mouth, pacing or whining, coughing, choking or gagging, wheezing, trouble breathing, pale gums or the tongue turning pale or blue. Issues such as lung disease or asthma can also cause excessive panting.
Diagnosis involves having your vet examine your dog thoroughly, including looking in the nose, mouth, and throat. Bloodwork and ultrasound or X-rays can check for masses, congestion, or underlying illnesses causing problems. Treatment will vary depending on the cause. It can range from removal of obstructing objects, daily medications, surgery, or referral to a specialist.
Preventing your dog from getting to objects that can get stuck in the nose or mouth can help. Knowing your dog’s health history and genetics can also help catch chronic illnesses before they become too hard to treat.
Medication Side Effects
As noted with iatrogenic Cushing’s, some medications may cause side effects such as excessive panting. Your dog may also show symptoms such as changes in eating or drinking habits, vomiting or diarrhea, changes in behavior, and more. While not every medication side effect is serious enough to need a change, it is good to note any major symptoms for your vet. In most cases, these side effects will be short-term and go away when your dog is done with the medication. Steroids, such as prednisone and prednisolone, are the most likely to cause excessive panting and similar side effects.
Diagnosis and treatment of medication side effects, if severe enough, can include testing to rule out other potential causes, and changing medication dosage or the type of medication used. Your veterinarian can work with you to determine if the benefits of the medication outweigh its side effects.
To prevent or reduce medication side effects, it is best to let your vet know several things prior. These include any other medications or supplements your dog is on. Also, share any underlying health issues and any other foods or factors that could interact with medication. Write down the severity and frequency of any side effects to determine if the medication needs to be stopped or changed.
Ingestion of a toxic item is a serious medical issue that should be seen by a veterinarian right away. This can include the ingestion of fatty food scraps, toxic chemicals such as rodent poisons, or plants in the environment. Your dog may show symptoms such as excessive panting, drooling or foaming of the mouth, vomiting or diarrhea, changes in body temperature, lethargy or confusion, or even coma or seizures. If you think your dog has eaten something toxic, your dog should be treated immediately.
Diagnosis of toxic ingestion includes a thorough physical exam, as well as a history of what your dog may have eaten. Bloodwork, X-ray, and ultrasound can also help to check how the organs are functioning, and if there is material still in the digestive tract that needs to be removed. Treatment depends on what was eaten, but can involve IV medications and fluids, surgical removal of items, activated charcoal to coat the stomach, or induction of vomiting to remove the toxic item. In cases such as rat poison, longer-term medications such as Vitamin K can be given to help the body recover.
Prevention involves close monitoring of what your dog may be able to get into. Walking your dog on a leash, keeping chemicals secured out of reach, and avoiding situations where your dog could eat something bad can help.
Irritants of the eyes, nose, mouth, or respiratory tract can also cause excessive panting in dogs. This can include toxic chemicals released into the air, perfumes or heavy fragrances, essential oils diffusing nearby, pollens or dust, or poor air quality. Signs of irritation can include pawing at the face or mouth, discharge from the eyes or nose, heavy panting, coughing or wheezing, reddening of the eyes, or your dog attempting to move away from the irritant.
In many cases, moving your dog away from the irritant and to a well-ventilated room can stop symptoms. If your dog continues to have symptoms, a complete veterinary exam and medical workup is best. This can determine if there are underlying causes or long-term effects that need to be treated. IV fluids, allergy medications, and treatment of secondary symptoms can all help.
It is easier to prevent irritants from affecting your dog than it is to treat them. If you will be somewhere with poor air quality, making sure your dog is kept in a well-ventilated area can help. If you notice your dog is reacting to a diffused perfume or oil, moving them to another room that is ventilated or has a fan running can reduce symptoms. Keeping your dog away from potential irritants by keeping them leashed away from dangerous plants can also help.
Excessive panting has a wide range of potential causes. Some warrant immediate veterinary care, and others can easily be treated at home. If you notice your dog is panting more than usual, keeping an eye on any other symptoms and environmental causes can help you determine what is going on and when you should see your vet.