Respiratory Disease in Dogs


Respiratory disease can be broadly divided into two categories: disease affecting the upper respiratory tract i.e. the nose, throat and trachea (windpipe), and disease affecting the lower respiratory tract i.e. the lower airways and lungs. There are a wide variety of conditions affecting the respiratory tract but this is a summary of the most common problems likely to affect your dog.


Upper respiratory tract disease


Infectious tracheitis (‘Kennel cough’)


This means inflammation of the trachea (windpipe) caused by a bug (a bacteria or virus). It is most commonly known as kennel cough because dogs often pick up these infections whilst in kennels but they can acquire them anywhere where they have contact with other dogs. The usual sign of this condition is a harsh cough, and your dog may be off colour.

The cough often sounds like they have something stuck in their throat. There are several different bacteria and viruses that can cause kennel cough, and your vet may prescribe antibiotics to treat the condition if they think it is necessary. They may also take samples to send away for bacterial culture and sensitivity to identify which antibiotics are best for treatment. There is a vaccine available for kennel cough. Click here to find out more about culture and sensitivity


If you think your dog has kennel cough you should be careful not to pass it on to other dogs as it is very contagious. It is often a self-limiting condition, meaning if symptoms are mild you may not need to visit the vet and risk spreading the disease around other patients. If you do think you need your vet’s advice, it is best if you can keep your dog outside away from others while you wait to be seen. There may be elderly or sick animals or puppies in the waiting room that are more susceptible to infection.


Conditions affecting the nose


These most commonly result in sneezing and a runny nose with discharge from one or both nostrils. This may be watery, purulent (thicker and often yellow/green colour) or bloody depending on the cause. Possible conditions include:


Foreign body (for example a grass seed) in the nose – symptoms will usually start suddenly and your dog may rub or paw at their face.

Inflammatory or allergic disease.

Bacterial or viral infection.

Fungal infection.

Tumour within the nose.

Your vet may ask you for details about the nature of any discharge and examine your dog’s nose and mouth. They may wish to take samples to send away for bacterial culture and sensitivity to identify any bacteria present. They may also take x-rays of your dog’s nose or use an endoscope (a special camera) to look inside the nose. If bacterial infection is present your vet may prescribe antibiotics to treat this. They will also be able to advise you on the best course of treatment if any of the other above problems is present.


Airway problems


There are several problems which can affect your dog’s airways (tubes that lead into the lungs). We have mentioned a couple of the more common problems here. These conditions will usually require further investigation; if you are worried that your dog may be suffering from either you should your consult your vet. Corrective surgery may be an option to alleviate the symptoms and prevent the condition getting worse.


Laryngeal Paralysis


The larynx is found in the throat. It helps to stop food entering the airway when your dog eats and it opens and closes with breathing. It is like a gate into the trachea (windpipe). It also makes the sound when we talk or your dog barks. Paralysis means that it no longer moves as it should to open and close. This most often occurs in large middle aged to older dogs. You may notice:


Noisy breathing, especially when exercising.

More effort needed to breathe.

Your dog not being able to exercise like they used to.


Change in bark.

In severe cases it can cause collapse if your dog cannot get enough air into the lungs.

Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome


Brachycephalic means a shorter skull.  Brachycephalic dogs are those with flatter faces for example pugs and bulldogs. This change in face shape can cause these dogs problems with their airways and breathing. The nasal passages are often squashed and the throat area is a different shape, both of which make it more difficult for air to flow through and into the lungs. A vicious cycle then occurs as this can cause more damage to the upper airways as they try to force air through. Symptoms of this problem include:


Noisy breathing, especially when exercising.

Difficulty breathing especially when they are hot or exercising.

Breathing with their mouth open.

At worst they may suffer episodes of collapse when the gums and tongue look blue. This can be life threatening; always consult your vet if you are worried.


Lower respiratory tract disease


Signs that your dog has a lower respiratory tract condition may include:



Faster breathing.

More effort needed to breathe or difficulty breathing in severe cases.

Reduced ability to exercise or getting out of breath more quickly.

If there is an infection they may be generally unwell or off their food, and may have a runny nose.

There are lots of conditions which can cause some or all of these signs but the most common include:


Bacterial infection (bronchopneumonia) – this can be sudden in onset or a more long term problem, and can vary in severity.

Inflammatory conditions for example chronic bronchitis which is often seen in small breed dogs that are overweight.

Heart disease.

Tumours of the lungs or those elsewhere in the chest.

Lungworm – dogs can pick this up from eating snails and slugs.

Your vet will ask you questions about the symptoms you have noticed, and will examine your dog including listening to their heart and lungs with a stethoscope. This may help them to decide what is causing the symptoms you have noticed, or they may need to do further tests to try to identify the problem. These may include:


X-rays of the chest.

Using an endoscope to look at the airways and to take samples of fluid from the airways to send to the laboratory. The laboratory can run culture and sensitivity testing to identify any bacteria present, and look at the cells present under the microscope. Click here to find out more about Culture and Sensitivity, also visit our cytology section for further information

An ultrasound scan of the heart. Click here to find out more about diagnostic imaging

Treatment will depend on the problem identified. If an infection is present then antibiotics may be necessary and if lungworm is suspected a specific worming treatment can be used. Your vet will be able to advise you on any other treatment necessary depending on the results of their investigations.




Disclaimer:  This website has been designed to offer information surrounding the use of antibiotics and infection control for pet owners.  It does not replace advice from your veterinary surgeon.  If you believe your pet is unwell or you have any questions relating to their treatment, please always contact your veterinary surgeon for advice.