My Old Dog Is Panting. What Does That Mean?

By Dr. Monica Tarantino

Have you noticed your old dog panting a lot?  Panting can be a normal physiological behavior for dogs but what about when it starts happening more often in your older dog?  In this article, we will discuss what an increase in panting can mean in a senior dog and what to do about it.

Why do dogs pant?

If you ever see a human pant, it’s usually because we’ve sprinted and are out of breath!  But dogs pant far more frequently than we do as humans. Let’s discuss the various reasons panting in an older dog can occur and why an old dog can pant a lot.

When Panting Is Normal

Panting is a pretty common behavior for dogs.  There are normal reasons for dogs to pant and then there are reasons that are not normal.  We’ll first begin by discussing why dogs pant normally.

Normal panting is something that dog’s historically do to help cool themselves down.  Panting accounts for one of the major ways dogs have to expend heat from their bodies since sweating is not the main mechanism that dog’s use to cool themselves down.

Healthy dogs pant in various situations in regards to temperature and exercise.  For example, on a warm summer day you can see a dog pant to help dissipate extra heat.  We can also see dogs pant on walks to try to help dissipate excess heat from exercising.  Old dogs can pant when resting after these walks as well.

Controlling the amount of heat and exercise that dogs are exposed to is really important for us as dog owners especially because dogs can overheat and get heatstroke easier than many owners are aware of which we’ll discuss more below in the abnormal section of reasons a dog can pant.  Dogs do not sweat like we do so panting allows them to cool when overheated.

Panting can be an important indicator for some dogs as there are many reasons dog’s can pant that are beyond cooling down. Paying attention to changes in panting patterns can clue us into medical changes as they age.

Abnormal Causes of Panting

Anxiety

A simple increase in anxiety or excitement can cause an increase in panting for any dog. We see anxiety increase with age in many dogs as they lose senses like hearing or seeing or develop cognitive dysfunction.

This minor change in your dog’s panting can be considered “normal” if there are no underlying causes which you should discuss with your vet. This panting can seem prolonged compared to the usual pant pattern.

It might occur at odd times of day or involve more effort than normal without being a response to trying to cool down.  For example, panting at night can also occur in dogs.  Discuss with your vet as changes in behavior or night time sleeping habits can sometimes indicate the start of doggy dementia. Sometimes calming supplements that support relaxation and cognition can be helpful for dogs.  I like both Composure and Golden Years Calm and Confident (both made from VetriScience) to help with mild anxiety in older dogs.

Pain/Discomfort

When something hurts us as humans, we are lucky to be able to talk and communicate that something hurts with one another. Unfortunately, for our animal friends who communicate largely through body language, they do not have great ways to communicate pain to us.

Signs of discomfort or pain in a dog are usually more subtle. Many pet parents expect a dog that is in pain to yelp or be crying out and sure- they do sometimes, but most of the time the signs of pain that they have are not obvious and panting is one of those examples.

Often dogs that are in pain will pant more excessively as expression or as an attempt to try to calm themselves down and distract from what is hurting.  When a dog is in pain they can pant excessively in attempts to alleviate their discomfort.

 

Disease/Metabolic Changes

There are a few medical reasons for the increase in panting. There are certain diseases like Cushing’s that have been associated with panting.  Some diseases can alter your dog’s metabolism.

 

Diseases that alter the metabolic state and cause something called metabolic acidosis in their bodies can cause excessive panting. Any sort of disease that can cause a fever can also cause panting in a dog.  Hyperthyroidism, cancer or hypertension can also cause it in dogs. Even low red blood cell level, also known as anemia, can cause panting in dogs because they have less red blood cells to deliver oxygen around the body.

Dogs in pain can pant as one sign to tell you that it hurts.

 

Medications

Some transient reasons for increased panting can be side effects from medications.  One common medication is steroids like prednisone can cause panting.  Always discuss medications with your vet and do not make changes to it without talking to them.

Laryngeal Paralysis

Older dogs (especially retrievers or retriever mixes) can develop a disease in their larynx that makes it difficult to get air into their trachea that can cause excessive panting.  Often time, these dogs will have a noise called ‘stridor’ that a vet can hear or look for. Here is a great video of what these dogs can sound like. Keeping them calm is very important in their day to day lives.

Obesity

Dogs with excess adipose tissue can pant more often.  The excess fat can make it more difficult to breathe and expand their lungs. It can also increase their likelihood of heat intolerance causing it necessary to pant.

Heart or Lung Disease

Respiratory diseases for example can cause panting or abnormal breathing. With dogs with cardiorespiratory disease, their heart and lungs are diseased and cause increased breathing rates, labored breathing (difficulty breathing) or even excessive panting.

If you ever notice labored breathing or high sleeping respiratory rates in your dog, you want to contact your veterinarian right away. Congestive heart failure is something that dogs with heart disease can develop and can be life threatening.

Heatstroke

Heatstroke is something that can be lethal to dogs and unfortunately, we see dogs die from this every single year in the US no matter what part of the country you live in. The most common time that we see heat stroke is early spring or summer.  This can even happen when the temperature is only in the 70’s for some dogs especially if it had been pretty cool until then.

Often on the first day of spring, eager dog owners take their dogs out to enjoy the weather, not realizing it is a steep temperature change for a dog that has not been out in that degree of weather. If the dog exercises too much in this hot weather and is not used to it, their bodies can not acclimate and panting will occur but will not be enough to dissipate the heat that was built in their body. They will excessively pant. Heatstroke can be mild to life threatening.

What should you do if you notice your old dog is panting a lot or with additional effort?

First, you should make sure your pet is not in respiratory distress or having difficulty getting air in and out of its lungs. If you are noticing your dog is breathing heavy and additional effort to get air in and out of them, then you want to call your vet office or the ER right away and seek guidance.  If you can grab a video of what you’re seeing, that can be helpful too. Respiratory distress is an emergency and can have many different causes.

What should I do if my dog seems stable but has increased panting?

Panting can have many different meanings, monitoring and logging these changes can help determine if it is transient or chronic and in need of additional medical advice. Excess panting should not be ignored- especially in our seniors.

If your pet seems stable and the excessive panting seems to happen at random, you will still want to call your vet. One other thing that could help is getting a video and logging the time and events surrounding this increase in respiratory effort.  Calling the vet will help them rule out some of the causes we discussed above.

A video and log can help you and your veterinarian understand what is happening that could be causing this increase in panting. If this is a new or concerning trend in your dog’s health, your vet can investigate with additional diagnostics which might include bloodwork and or x rays to determine the root cause.

Pay attention to what the temperature is and any exercise or events near the time that the panting occurs. Had they had a playdate and gotten rough and tumbled earlier that week? What was the temperature?  Had your dog been excited by something or on a walk?

Once you have determined the cause your vet may have you begin daily prescriptions to help manage your pet’s condition. Many heart and lung diseases can be somewhat managed with monitoring or medications depending on severity.

If pain from arthritis or other sources of chronic pain are causing the increased panting, addressing their pain can decrease the panting to a normal level. Maintaining a healthy weight can also make a big difference in their breathing patterns.

Conclusion

Bringing changes in panting up to your veterinarian is important as in certain situations it may allow catching a disease or even pain your pet can not tell you about earlier which can lead to more quality time for you and your pet.

Panting can have many different meanings, monitoring and logging these changes can help determine if it is transient or chronic and in need of additional medical advice. Excess panting should not be ignored- especially in our seniors.

Being mindful of subtle changes can be our biggest asset in providing care for our senior dogs. Bringing these concerns to your veterinarian and working together to adjust treatment plans can help you and your senior have the best Golden Years.

 

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