Did you ever watch your dog sleeping peacefully and breathing deeply, only to see his breath start to quicken and become almost a pant? It can be a worrying experience, particularly if you have no idea what might be going on. Is the dog sick, or just dreaming? Should you call the vet? There are a number of reasons why your sleeping dog might be panting. Some are as benign as a dream about a rabbit chase, while others tell of a problem with the dog's respiration or other related systems. Although it is impossible to determine the cause of any individual dog's breathing difficulties without a veterinary exam, here are a few possibilities that may apply to your panting pooch.
The Root of the Behavior
For most dogs, rapid breathing during sleep is nothing to worry about. The most likely explanation is an exciting dream, in which case the rapid breathing will come to its natural end as the dog's sleep cycle changes. If you think your dog is breathing quickly for longer than a dream would normally indicate, try not to worry right away. First consider his age and size. If you have a puppy, his respiratory and heart rates tend to be naturally faster than an older dog, even during sleep. This is likely to resolve as he gets older, particularly if he is a larger breed. Smaller breed dogs may have relatively fast breathing rates throughout life, and dogs with short or compressed faces tend to be prone to panting in general. There are some cases, however, in which fast breathing during sleep indicates a cardiovascular problem. This might be the case if your dog's fast breathing continues into his wakeful hours, and particularly if he seems lethargic or easily fatigued during these wakeful times. This may indicate cardiomyopathy or congestive heart failure, which causes the dog's respiration to increase in an effort to improve blood circulation. Panting due to oxygen deprivation may also occur in dogs with anemia, which limits the number of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body. Dogs with allergies, asthma, or another respiratory disease, any of which interfere with airway function and cause a dog to struggle to breathe. This may be the case if your dog appears to be in a strange position while panting. If his head and neck are stretched out or his elbows are spread apart, for example, he may be trying to open his airway and get more oxygen. In general, if your dog is breathing fast because of a medical condition, he will show a number of other symptoms as well. These include coughing, loss of appetite, fever, and congestion, although these signs are not present 100 percent of the time.
Encouraging the Behavior
So how can you tell whether you should worry about your sleeping dog's fast breathing? Start by watching your dog when he is awake. If he appears healthy overall, it is very likely that he is just a vivid dreamer. You can also test to see if your dog's rapid breathing is too rapid by counting the number of breaths eh takes per minute. Most dogs breathe between 18 and 34 times per minute. When he starts to breathe fast during his next nap or overnight sleep, start counting. You can either count his breaths in a full minute or, if his rapid breathing appears regular enough, count for 30 seconds and multiply by two or count for 15 seconds and multiply by four. You may also choose to take your dog's temperature or measure his pulse, so that you have as much information as possible. If his number of breaths per minute exceeds 34 by a significant amount, or if he is presenting with any other symptoms, it may be wise to call your veterinarian. He or she can test for heart problems, fluid in the lungs, or other conditions that might be making it difficult for your dog to breathe. Should the vet find a problem, treatment of that issue may resolve the dog's sleep disturbances during sleep and make it easier for you as the owner to rest as well.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If your dog's rapid breathing is not short-lived and confined to sleep, but there are no other symptoms or signs that your dog is sick, it may be that the bedroom is too hot. Dogs don't have sweat glands, so they can only release heat through their mouths and the pads of their feet. When a dog's temperature rises 3 to 4 degrees above their normal body temperature of 100 to 102.5 F, they can develop heat stroke and start to breathe too quickly. If it is warm in your house or in the outdoor space where your dog is sleeping, a fan or adjusted air conditioning may be effective in relieving your dog's breathing difficulties.
Despite the myriad of medical conditions that can cause rapid breathing during sleep, most dogs who do this aren't experiencing any kind of medical problem at all. A little bit of caution can never hurt, but don't jump to panic before you have at least consulted with your veterinarian. You may be able to just let sleeping dogs lie!