When you call another human being a "mouth breather," you may not be looking to give a compliment. But what about when your dog seems to be doing just that? Is there something wrong with his nose? Or do dogs, like people, sometimes just feel better breathing through their mouth?
As is the case with most puzzling dog behaviors, there is no quick answer to this question. It all depends on whether the dog is exerting himself, what the temperature is, and whether his airways are healthy. Here are a few of the most common situations that cause a dog to become a mouth-breather.
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The Root of the Behavior
Most of the time, a healthy dog at rest will breathe through his nose. Mouth breathing most often occurs when the dog is panting, a physiological process that allows the dog to maintain a safe and controlled body temperature during periods of exertion. A dog cannot sweat through his skin like a human can, so nature has provided him with an alternative method.
As the dog's body gets warmer, his salivary glands begin to produce more saliva. This causes the dog to release more heat each time he exhales through his mouth. At the same time, as blood flows through the mouth, the inflow of air cools the blood. The cooled air continues its progress through the dog's body, and the dog's temperature drops.
The warmer the dog gets, the more heavily it will pant. Panting that becomes abnormally heavy may indicate the development of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which is a serious medical condition and requires urgent attention.
Dogs pant for other reasons as well. One of the most common is anxiety or stress, which explains many cases of panting in dogs who are on their way to the vet or sitting through a fireworks display. However, some dogs also pant when they are particularly content, so watch your dog's body language. If his tail is wagging, he may just be happy.
Sometimes, however, a dog will breathe through his mouth because he is in pain or ill. This is more likely if the dog is showing other signs of illness such as lethargy, loss of appetite, or limping. If there is unexplained panting without these symptoms, it is possible that the dog is experiencing a respiratory illness or problem with the heart. If this has happens suddenly, an urgent visit to the vet is in order.
Encouraging the Behavior
So, when is your dog's panting a cause for concern? A dog's breathing through his mouth is not a problem in and of itself. In fact, it serves the crucial purpose of keeping the dog's body temperature at its normal level of 101 to 102.5 F. The only time you need to worry that a warm or exercising dog is panting is when he begins to show signs of overheating. If this happens, your first task is to bring the dog to a cooler area.You may also need to encourage him toward an alternative means of cooling.
Dogs can cool down by lying on a cool surface such as a tile floor. Dogs will often do this naturally but if your dog appears to be in danger of overheating, you may need to lead him to an appropriate surface. If you have a car that is already cool, you may also be able to help the dog cool down by taking him for a drive with the window down. Contact with moving air will let the dog lose heat faster. Let him keep panting throughout the process.
If your dog is panting due to anxiety or illness, the panting itself is still not a problem but the underlying issue needs attention. Stress panting can be the simplest to relieve, as it often only requires removing the dog from the situation. If the anxiety seems chronic, however, you may need to call the vet. A vet visit is also called for if the dog is appears to be in pain, is vomiting or having diarrhea, or shows other signs of illness.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Sometimes, mouth breathing is the sign of a medical emergency. As noted above, dogs who are suddenly breathing heavily with no apparent explanation may be in cardiovascular distress. This is particularly likely if the dog's heart is beating fast.
Another serious warning sign to look out for is a dog who is breathing through his mouth because he cannot get enough air. This may be the case if the dog is standing with his legs wide apart or with his neck stretched out. Owners should also listen for quick deep breaths, which are different from the rapid and shallow breaths of normal panting.
Finally, even if a dog appears to be mouth-breathing to cool off, owners should make sure he does not get so hot that he develops heat stroke. If you notice any disorientation, thickened saliva, pinpoint blood spots on the skin, and redness of the gums and tongue, seek veterinary attention immediately.