Humans Aren't the Only Ones Who Can Suffer With Asthma

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

asthma in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Asthma is more common in cats, but it occurs in dogs as well — especially flat-faced (brachycephalic) breeds
  • Classic symptoms of canine asthma include coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Common triggers for asthma in dogs include inhaled substances such as grasses, pollens, aerosol sprays and any type of smoke
  • Treatment is focused on resolving the immediate breathing crisis, working to eliminate potential asthma triggers in the dog’s environment and administering appropriate natural substances and medications, if necessary
  • Fortunately, there are several things you can implement at home to reduce the frequency and severity of your dog’s asthma attacks

When a dog is diagnosed with asthma, it’s not uncommon for the pet parent to be incredulous. “I didn’t know dogs could get asthma,” is a typical response. And while it’s true the condition is seen much more often in cats than dogs, it does occur from time to time. Asthma is most prevalent in brachycephalic breeds, which are dogs (and cats) with flat or “pushed in” faces such as the Pug or the Persian. Middle-aged and small dogs are also more likely to develop the disorder.

Signs to Watch For

Asthma, which is also referred to as allergic bronchitis, bronchial asthma or chronic bronchitis, is a condition in which your dog has recurrent attacks of wheezing, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

During an asthma attack, there is constriction of the airways leading to the lungs. A buildup of mucus collects in the airways, causing them to become inflamed and sometimes even ulcerated. In response, the muscles of the airways spasm, causing constriction that makes it very difficult for your pet to draw a deep breath. Symptoms of asthma include a dry hack that often sounds like gagging or retching, as well as:

Open mouth breathing

Exercise intolerance

Wheezing, which can sound like a high-pitched sigh or whistle

Lack of appetite

Labored breathing

Weight loss

Lethargy

Pale mucous membranes, especially bluish gums

If the condition becomes chronic, it can cause irreversible damage to the sensitive tissue lining of the respiratory passageways, and an acute asthma attack can cause suffocation. Obviously, this is a medical emergency that requires immediate veterinary attention.

Causes and Triggers

Airway constriction in your dog can occur for no obvious reason, or it can be triggered by something in the environment he has inhaled, or even something he’s eaten. There are many common triggers for asthma in pets, including:

Cigarette or fireplace smoke

Grasses, pollen, ragweed

Aerosol sprays, including room air fresheners, plug-ins, scented candles

Fertilizers and pesticides

Household chemicals and cleaning products, including carpet cleaners

Air pollution, including smog and smoke from wildfires or crop burning

Mold and mildew

Animal dander from a new or visiting pet

Dust mites

Animal dander exposure at a veterinary clinic or boarding facility

Home remodeling products, including paint

Cat litter dust

How Asthma Is Diagnosed in Dogs

Symptoms of canine asthma are seen in other diseases as well, so it’s extremely important to get an accurate diagnosis. A heart condition can be misdiagnosed as asthma. Obviously, these two diseases are treated entirely differently, so a correct diagnosis is critical.

Other conditions with symptoms that can mimic signs of asthma are systemic allergies, including food allergies, and both heartworm and lungworm infections.

Sometimes it's quite obvious by simply looking at your dog that he's having trouble breathing. The breaths are rapid and shallow, and the abdomen is working very hard to push air back out. There can also be open mouth breathing. Typically, chest x-rays are taken, but they don't always show changes to the lungs. A transtracheal wash is a procedure that retrieves cells from the lower airways, and it can be helpful in diagnosing asthma in dogs who have symptoms, but whose x-rays are normal.

Another test that can help eliminate or confirm potential causes of acute or chronic coughing is a bronchoscopy, a procedure that involves passing a tiny camera down the bronchi to visualize the inside of the lungs and collect a tissue sample. Other tests may include heartworm and fecal testing to check for internal parasites, echocardiography to assess heart function, and comprehensive blood and urine panels to assess your dog's systemic health and organ function.

Since diagnosing asthma in a pet isn't always straightforward, any information you can provide to the veterinarian will be helpful. For example, how long has your dog been coughing? Is it more of a cough or is it a gasp? Is it a dry or wet cough? Is he coughing up mucous, and if so, is it green or blood-tinged?

Are you noticing wheezing, choking or other respiratory signs that aren't normal? How often are you seeing symptoms? Daily? Weekly? Only at night? How long do they last? Having answers to these questions can go a long way in helping your veterinarian accurately diagnose your dog.

Treatment Options

If your dog is having an asthma-related crisis, your veterinarian or emergency animal clinic staff will administer a small dose of epinephrine to very quickly resolve the crisis and save her life. Pure oxygen will be given at the same time. In some acute situations, inhalant treatments with a nebulizer with or without additional medications are also required.

The goal of long-term treatment for asthma is to identify and eliminate all triggers in your dog's environment if possible. In cases of chronic asthma, complete resolution of the cough is almost never possible. In those cases, the goal is to reduce the frequency and severity of the cough, so that your pet is more comfortable.

I recommend you talk to an integrative veterinarian about natural remedies to control lung inflammation and promote respiratory health in your dog. These can include anti-inflammatory plant sterols and sterolins, anti-inflammatory Chinese herbs and acupuncture.

Optimizing vitamin D levels is important in reducing the severity and frequency of asthma attacks in humans, and I have also identified sub-optimal vitamin D levels in some asthmatic dogs. It’s important to test your dog’s vitamin D levels before supplementing, because too much vitamin D is toxic to the body.

There are a wide variety of drugs that conventional veterinarians use to treat asthma, including bronchodilators and specially designed steroid inhalers. Vets often start with one or several of these drugs to manage severe asthma cases.

If your dog is taking drugs to control asthma, an integrative veterinarian can help wean her down or off of some of the medications. It's possible to manage dogs with respiratory disease using few or no drugs, but the weaning must be done gradually and there should be an effective replacement protocol in place first.

Pets with life-threatening asthma symptoms typically require at least some drugs to save their lives and reduce the intensity of attacks. If you're vigilant about eliminating potential asthma triggers and you're working with an integrative veterinarian who can offer effective alternative protocols, you can often reduce both the frequency and severity of your dog's asthma symptoms, and also the number of drugs needed.

Prevention Tips

Don't smoke. Give up smoking entirely, or at a minimum give it up around your pet and don't let others smoke around her. Second-hand smoke is a major trigger for asthma in sensitive pets.

Give up using your fireplace. I know this can be tough to do, but the fact is, smoke of any kind is a trigger for dogs with asthma. Fireplace smoke will settle in the low areas of your home, which is where your dog spends most of her time.

Reduce or eliminate all household sprays, including anything aerosolized. Make sure your dog isn't in the same room with anyone spraying anything from a bottle or can.

Get rid of scented plug-ins, candles, incense, heated potpourri — any product that gives off an aroma, even if it’s natural. Any product that emits a strong scent or releases particles into the air can be a trigger for sensitive pets (and people as well).

Switch from chemical household cleaners to green cleaners. Keep in mind that even natural cleaners like vinegar give off an odor, so make sure your home is well-ventilated. It’s also a good idea to remove your dog from the environment until all odors have dissipated.

If you also have a cat, consider gradually switching to an unscented, low-dust litter in the event kitty litter dust is triggering your dog’s asthma.

If you have pet pest problems, use an all-natural, safe pest repellent for flea and tick control.

Consider investing in an air purifier for your home and place it where your pet spends most of his time. Replace your HVAC air filters regularly.

If your dog is overweight, get her down to a healthy size. Obesity makes the lungs work much harder.

Make sure your dog's daily routine stays very consistent to reduce any stress that can be a potential trigger for asthma.

Feed an optimally balanced, fresh, species-appropriate diet and a brand new (novel) protein source. A species-appropriate diet (aka low-carb diet) for dogs also means an anti-inflammatory diet. Asthma is caused by inflammation of the airways in the lungs, so reducing inflammation across the board, including from dietary sources, is important.

Eliminate all foods and treats containing synthetic colors, additives, genetically modified ingredients, farm-raised fish and factory-farmed meats (containing antibiotics or hormones). Provide filtered water, free from chlorine and fluoride.

Invest in an organic pet bed (flame-retardant free), covered with a dust mite protector and wash all pet bedding once a week.

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