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Collapsing Trachea in Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

by Dr. Jennifer Coates

In both people and pets, the trachea is the tube that carries air from the nose and mouth through the neck and into the lungs. The frightening term “collapsing trachea” refers to a relatively common disease that causes chronic coughing and other symptoms in dogs.

Below, learn everything you need to know about tracheal collapse in dogs.

Symptoms of of Tracheal Collapse in Dogs

No single, specific cause has been identified to explain all cases of tracheal collapse in dogs. A congenital (present at birth) weakness of the cartilage within the trachea seems to play a big role, but environmental factors and concurrent diseases are important too. Small breed dogs, especially Yorkshire Terriers, are most at risk for developing a collapsing trachea. Yorkies are often diagnosed when they are young adults, but symptoms of tracheal collapse tend to develop in mid-life or even later in other breeds.

A dog with a collapsing trachea experiences chronic, intermittent bouts of coughing that tend to get worse with exercise, excitement, stress, eating, drinking, or when pressure is applied to the trachea. The sound of the cough can be quite distinctive and is often described as a goose-honk. Dogs develop other clinical signs that vary with the severity of the collapsing trachea—in other words, how narrow (or even completely closed) the airway becomes. Additional symptoms can include retching, rapid or difficult breathing, exercise intolerance, blue-tinged gums and fainting.

None of the clinical signs associated with tracheal collapse are unique to this disease. To differentiate a collapsing trachea from other conditions, a veterinarian will start by taking a complete health history and performing a physical examination. Oftentimes, the doctor can trigger a cough be pressing on the dog’s windpipe. Taking x-rays while a dog is breathing will sometimes reveal a collapsing trachea, but more advanced diagnostic tests like fluoroscopy (a type of moving x-ray) or bronchoscopy (inserting a tube with a small video camera at the end into an anesthetized dog’s airways) may be necessary.

Medical Management for a Collapsing Trachea

If your dog is having a hard time breathing, has blue-tinged gums or has fainted, he needs to be taken to a nearby veterinary clinic immediately. A veterinarian can provide supplemental oxygen and other treatments to ease his breathing. Once his condition is stable, diagnostic tests can be run to determine the cause of his symptoms.

Most dogs diagnosed with a collapsing trachea are treated with medications. Drug options include:

  • Cough suppressants (e.g., butorphanol or hydrocodone) - every time a dog coughs his airways become more irritated and inflamed. Cough suppressants play a duel role by controlling an annoying symptom and helping to reduce irritation that promotes more coughing.

  • Anti-inflammatories (e.g., prednisone or fluticasone) - corticosteroids are often prescribed to reduce swelling and inflammation of the trachea. These medications can be given orally or by inhalation. Inhaled steroids have a lower incidence of side-effects.

  • Bronchodilators (e.g., theophylline, terbutaline, or albuterol) - these medications can widen small airways within the lungs, which eases the pressure put on the trachea.

  • Sedatives (e.g., butorphanol or acepromazine) - when dogs become anxious or excited their symptoms often get worse. Light sedation can help.

  • Antibiotics - dogs with tracheal collapse are at higher-than-average risk for respiratory infections. Veterinarians will often prescribe a course of antibiotics when an infection is diagnosed or suspected.

  • Anabolic steroids - research has shown that stanozolol, a derivative of testosterone, can help dogs with a collapsing trachea. It has some anti-inflammatory activity and may also help strengthen cartilage.

A surprisingly high number of dogs with tracheal collapse also suffer from other conditions like obesity, heart disease, liver enlargement, dental problems, an elongated soft palate, and conditions affecting the larynx (voice box). All of these may make a dog’s symptoms worse and need to be adequately treated to maximize quality of life. It is very important that dogs with a collapsing trachea be fed a diet that helps them maintain a healthy (if slightly underweight) body weight.

Airborne irritants also promote coughing in dogs with tracheal collapse. The dog’s home should be free of cigarette smoke and strong fragrances. Allergen and dust exposure can be reduced by keeping the windows closed, running an air conditioner and/or HEPA air filtration system and regularly cleaning the home.

Exercise has both benefits and potential risks for a dog with a collapsing trachea. It can help with weight management and keeping dogs calm, but may make matters worse when it is associated with rapid breathing, over-excitement or exposure to irritants. Long, slow walks are usually best if your dog’s temperament and symptoms allow. Swap out a collar for a harness to avoid putting pressure on your dog’s trachea.

Surgical Management for a Collapsing Trachea

If medical and environmental management cannot adequately control a dog’s symptoms, you can consider surgical options. A veterinary surgeon may recommend placing rings on the outside of a dog’s trachea or a stent inside the trachea, both of which serve to prevent collapse. Which type of surgery is best depends on the specifics of your dog’s case. Both can be successful, although surgical complications are relatively common and some dogs continue to require some medical management afterwards.

Unfortunately, there is no way to cure a dog’s collapsing trachea. Therefore, it is important to continue with the treatments recommended by your veterinarian and to closely monitor your dog’s condition. If at any time you notice your dog’s cough or other symptoms getting worse, call your veterinarian for advice.

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