How to Assess Your Dog's Rapid Breathing

It's normal for dogs to breathe heavily and fast when they have been running around and are feeling warm. Cats will, too, though usually less dramatically. But when your dog or cat is breathing fast and hard for no apparent reason, you need to figure out why.

Dogs normally breathe 12 to 20 times a minute, while cats usually breathe 20 to 30 times. "Rapid breathing generally means one of two things: Your pet is in pain, or she isn't getting enough oxygen," says A. David Scheele, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Midland, Texas.

It is not always easy to tell when -- or where -- your pet is hurting, adds Robert L. Rooks, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Fountain Valley, Calif. Dogs and cats are much more stoic than people are. One reason that they cope with pain by taking rapid breaths rather than crying out may be that their ancestors attacked comrades that showed weakness. Take a few minutes to check your pet for injuries or other problems that might be causing pain.

Look at your pet's eyes. If she is squinting or seems sensitive to light, she could have a scratched cornea or some other eye injury.

Gently poke her abdomen. If she winces or pulls away, she could have an internal problem, something as innocent as constipation or as serious as an infection.

Feel her legs and move them around a little. Conditions such as arthritis or hip dysplasia can be quite painful, and your pet could be having a flare-up.

If pain doesn't seem to be the problem, your pet could have a heart condition. Pets with congestive heart failure, for example, have trouble getting enough oxygen, so they will breathe more quickly. In addition, they may be reluctant to lie down. "Sitting upright helps them breathe a little easier, just as people with breathing problems will prop themselves up with pillows," says Ralph Barrett, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Carmichael, Calif.

One way to see if your pet is getting enough oxygen is to look at her gums. They are usually a healthy pink. If the gums seem slightly blue or gray, there may not be enough oxygen in the blood. (For pets with black gums, you can check for pink on the inside of a lower eyelid by gently pressing a finger below her eye and allowing the lower lid to droop a bit.)

Heart trouble isn't the only thing that can rob your pet of oxygen. Pneumonia or other respiratory tract infections can make it very hard for them to breathe. Pets with infections will usually seem quite sick, and they will often have a fever as well. (The normal temperature for dogs and cats is between 100.5 ° and 102.5°F.)

In cats, rapid breathing is sometimes caused by asthma. A cat that is having an asthma attack will breathe through her mouth, and she will probably be coughing and wheezing as well.

See Your Vet If...

  • Your cat or dog is breathing rapidly and doesn't want to lie down
  • She seems to be in pain
  • Your pet has a fever
  • Her gums are blue or gray
  • Your pet's voice has recently changed.
  • Your pet is panting excessively
  • Your dog or cat is coughing, wheezing, sneezing, or gagging
  • Exercise makes him unusually tired or causes him to cough or wheeze
  • Your pet has recently begun snoring, wheezing, or panting at night
  • He is breathing rapidly or taking shallow breaths
  • His belly is heaving when he breathes
  • His nose is dry, crusty, or bleeding
  • There is a discharge from his mouth or nose for two days or longer
  • Your pet's tongue or gums are blue or pale
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Copyright 1999 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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