“Auntie Sarah, why do dogs pant?”
A question recently posed to me by my beaut of an eight year old niece, Izzy.
So I explained that they pant as a way to regulate their body temperature, since they don’t sweat like we do. They have a small number of sweat glands on their paws, but not enough to sufficiently cool them down on a hot day or if they’ve over-exerted themselves playing.
But my ever-inquisitive little niece didn’t quit there.
She wondered why panting cools them down and how she would know if the panting wasn’t normal. Could it mean something more serious?
Let’s find out…
First up, why dogs pant.
The main reason you’ll see a dog panting will be to cool down.
Panting enables evaporation of moisture from the mouth and tongue which cools a dog down. How? The hot air from the lungs exchanges with the cooler external air which reduces the dog’s body temperature.
So that’s the science, now on to understanding ‘normal’ panting behaviour.
Normal panting behaviour could be…
- If it’s a hot day, your dog will pant even when sitting in the shade. We sweat (and fan ourselves) to keep cool, dog’s pant.
- If he’s been running around like a mad thing chasing a ball (or rabbits) his internal temperature will have risen, so he’ll pant to cool down.
- If your dog’s excited he may pant. Excited to see you, to play, to go out on an adventure, to get food… if he knows what’s coming and is excited by it, you may see some panting which is completely normal.
- Stress can also cause your dog to pant. For example, loud noises like fireworks or construction work. Separation anxiety. A new environment…
In these situations, panting shouldn’t be excessive or laboured. You may also see their tail wagging and a smiley mouth, so know it’s just a perfectly normal reaction to whatever he’s been up to.
In the last situation – stress – you should keep an eye on him. Yes, this is normal because dogs really don’t like loud noises or being alone, but it could manifest into breathing difficulties, so be mindful and do what you can to relax him while the situation continues.
So what’s excessive panting?
Excessive panting is something to look out for as it almost certainly will be something that your vet should check out.
Signs of excessive panting can include:
- Unusual panting – panting outside of the norm for your pooch
- Louder, raspy, laboured, or stressed panting
- Panting that occurs when it’s not hot or your dog hasn’t been exercising excessively
- Panting that’s combined with something else e.g. fatigue, sickness, limping, etc.
Here are a few common reasons for excessive or heavy panting.
Pay close attention, some are life threatening, so understanding the difference between being hot and tired and pain and sickness, could be vital.
If it’s a particularly hot day and your dog hasn’t been in a cool environment for much of it, panting will be the normal way to regulate body temperature. Problem is, it may have gone past the stage of which panting will help cool him down.
Heatstroke symptoms can include drooling, lethargy, a rapid heartbeat, glazed eyes, bright red tongue and gums, a dazed look, collapsing.
At the sign of any of these, get your dog indoors or to some shade immediately and place a cool wrap on him – a dampened down towel – or into a cool paddling pool. Try giving him some ice to lick and then when his temperature seems reduced, get him to a vet for a full examination.
There are plenty of toxic substances around a home that your pooch could consume which would cause a reaction. Medications, household cleaning products, rat poison, antifreeze, garden insecticides…
Signs your dog may have been poisoned would include very heavy panting, retching, vomiting, lethargy, and seizures. Take him to a vet immediately, as the earlier he’s treated, the more favourable the outcome.
Panting accompanied by whining could be a sign of an injury. It may be an obvious external injury, or an internal issue, but either way, he should be taken to the vet and fully checked.
Like us, dogs who are overweight can have difficulty breathing, even when they’re just out for a leisurely stroll. And for that reason, they’ll pant more heavily than when relaxing at home, or than dogs who are in a healthy weight range.
If it’s weight that’s causing your dog to pant excessively, speak with your vet or canine nutritionist about a diet to lose those excess pounds.
Gastric dilatation-volvulus, more commonly known as bloat, is an extremely serious condition that can rapidly progress to a life-threatening one.
Bloat is when a dog’s stomach fills with gas, food, or fluid and consequently twists creating severe abdominal pain and, most worryingly, obstructing blood flow to major organs.
Whilst it can happen to any dog breed at any time, it’s more common in large breeds with deep chests and is most often seen in middle aged dogs.
Factors that can contribute to bloat include:
- eating super-fast
- eating immediately before exercising
- drinking a large amount of water in a short space of time
- raised food bowls
Early signs of bloat include:
- panting or rapid breathing
- excessive drooling
- retching or attempts to vomit
- swollen or distended abdomen
- collapse/inability to stand
Visit your vet immediately if you suspect your dog is suffering from bloat.
6 Laryngeal paralysis
Laryngeal paralysis is when something changes the structure or function of the dog’s larynx (voice box).
Usually the cause is unknown. It could be anything from a birth defect to some kind of trauma, nervous-system disorder, hormonal deficiency, or disease.
In addition to panting, look out for these tell-tail signs:
- noisy and high-pitched sound when breathing in
- changes to the sound of his bark
- occasional coughing
- an intolerance to exercise and reduction in overall activity
- high rectal temperature
Again, a trip to the vet is the next step if you think your dog is suffering from laryngeal paralysis.
7 Cushing’s disease
Cushing’s disease is when your dog produces too much of the stress hormone cortisol. Whilst cortisol is needed to help your dog respond to stress, manage weight, fight infections and maintain blood sugar levels, too much can cause issues.
But it’s a tricky one to detect.
It will more likely occur in middle-aged to older dogs and signs can include:
- hair loss
- increased appetite
- much thirstier than usual
- peeing more frequently
- a pot belly
- tired and inactive
- skin infections
But because many of these signs could also be something else, head to your vet and have them run some tests to check it is Cushing’s and treat accordingly.
8 Heart disease
Heart disease can be quite common in dogs and successfully managed, if treated.
Most heart conditions involve a decrease in the effective pumping of blood. If the heart doesn’t pump properly, the body doesn’t get enough oxygen.
Although there’s no single cause, age and nutritional problems can play a major role in heart conditions. Overweight dogs are more likely to suffer from heart disease than fit healthy dogs, whatever their age.
This is another one that’s difficult to diagnose, since the signs can be similar to other illnesses, but look out for:
- panting and shortness of breath
- frequent coughing
- a lack of energy
- inability to exercise
- noticeable weight gain or loss
- swelling in the abdomen
Again, it’s important that you visit your vet for a full check-up and diagnosis if your dog is suffering from any of the above.
Ultimately, if your dog isn’t panting for an obvious reason, and is displaying signs of irregularities alongside excessive panting, visit your vet without delay.
Don’t risk something turning nasty, quickly.