Labored Breathing in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Labored breathing in dogs can be a sign that something is very wrong and should never be ignored. Difficulty breathing is a common complaint and may indicate many different medical issues. If your dog is showing ANY signs of difficulty or distress with their breathing, you must seek veterinary care immediately, as this condition can be life-threatening.

What Is Labored Breathing in Dogs?

Labored breathing in dogs is a broad term that encompasses any breathing difficulty or dysfunction. Labored breathing is almost always a sign of a medical issue and is different than a dog simply panting due to exercise, heat, or excitement. There are signs to watch for that will indicate that your dog is having difficulty breathing, and it is possible that rapid breathing or panting may accompany these signs. On its own, panting is rarely a sign of trouble, but if your dog is panting excessively or with no easily discernible cause, they should be seen by a veterinarian.

Symptoms of Labored Breathing in Dogs

The signs of labored breathing in dogs can vary between dogs and may present differently with different causes. Here are some of the most common signs to watch out for.


Wheezing is an abnormal, typically high-pitched sound that can be heard when the dog breathes in or out.


A dog may cough due to irritation of the respiratory tract or fluid in their lungs. The cough can be intermittent or constant and may sound wet or dry.

Increased respiratory effort

An increased respiratory effort is usually seen as the dog struggling to draw air into their respiratory tract and is often seen as an exaggerated chest motion upon inhalation. Sometimes an abdominal effort corresponding to breaths is seen with this.

Inability to lie down or get comfortable

Dogs that are having a hard time breathing often also find it difficult to lie down, or are restless and constantly moving when they do. This is due to the fact that breathing may become more difficult with positioning, sometimes the chest become compressed when they lie down.

Noisy breathing

Many breathing issues will result in a rattling or louder-than-normal sound when the dog attempts to pull air in or out the respiratory system through narrowed airways. Stridor and stertor are medical terms for noisy breathing.

Not wanting to play or go on a walk

When a dog is having difficulty breathing, breathing becomes their number one priority. These dogs often are not getting enough oxygen to enable them to be active. Some dogs will stop eating due to prioritizing their mouth for breathing.

White or blue gums

Pale or blue-tinged gums or tongue is a sign that the dog is not getting adequate oxygen to their tissues and is an emergency.

Panting excessively or for long periods of time

Dogs tend to pant when they are excited, hot, or active. However, excessive panting with the tongue greatly extended from the mouth, or for prolonged periods of time, with no explanation is a cause for concern. Panting may be a sign of a wide variety of conditions, and your dog should see a veterinarian to determine if there is a medical cause. Diagnostics including bloodwork and x-rays may be recommended.

What Causes Labored Breathing in Dogs?

Dogs may show signs of labored breathing as a result of many different medical conditions. Because the causes vary greatly and many can be life-threatening, as well as lead to significant suffering, it is imperative to seek immediate veterinary care if you think your dog is experiencing difficulty breathing. Some potential causes of labored breathing in dogs include:

How Do Vets Diagnose Labored Breathing in Dogs?

When you and your dog arrive, your veterinarian will ask for a detailed history and perform a 
thorough examination. In addition to the exam, diagnostics to determine the cause of the labored breathing will typically include blood work, chest X-rays, and measuring the amount of oxygen present in the blood. Other, more advanced diagnostics such as CT, MRI, and echocardiography may also be required.

How to Treat Labored Breathing

If your dog is showing signs of labored breathing, it is a true emergency, and you must seek veterinary care right away. Your veterinarian will assess your dog and treatment and prognosis will vary depending on the cause and severity.

The exact treatment will depend completely on the underlying cause. In some cases, treatment may include sedation, hospitalization, intravenous fluids, medications, and oxygen therapy. Your dog may require thoracocentesis (removing air or fluid from the chest cavity), a blood transfusion, surgery, or medications.

In some cases, the cause of labored breathing can have a poor prognosis. Your veterinarian may need to discuss quality of life management for your pet due to extreme suffering, which can occur with some cases of labored breathing. Some of these pets may feel as though they are suffocating or drowning. Labored breathing should not be ignored and a "wait and see" approach may lead to further distress for your pet.

Prognosis for Dogs with Labored Breathing

The first step in determining the prognosis of a dog with labored breathing is having your pet examined by a veterinarian. Many conditions, such as parasites, infections, and even heart disease, can be successfully treated if caught early. Unfortunately, the prognosis for other conditions, such as cancer in the lungs or severe trauma, is much poorer.

How to Prevent Labored Breathing

Some conditions that cause labored breathing cannot be altogether prevented, however, some can. You should start with always keeping your dog safe to avoid trauma. Always walking your dog on a leash and ensuring your yard’s fence is secure can eliminate many situations that may lead to trauma.

Keeping your dog up to date on all vaccinations, parasite prevention, and having regular wellness visits with your veterinarian will help prevent this issue as well. If an issue is found upon a routine examination, it is imperative to follow that up with timely diagnostics and treatments to prevent the situation from getting worse. Many diseases can be cured or at least successfully managed if caught and treated early.