People are quite capable of breathing through their mouths — if you've ever experienced a blocked nose or been given the dubious honor of being labeled a "mouth breather", you'll be well aware of this. But when it comes to our dogs, there's a widespread belief that our canine companions can only breathe in through their nose, using their mouth simply to pant when they need to cool down.
The reality is a little different. Dogs can breathe in through both the nose and mouth, and panting is actually a form of heavy breathing. So let's put our noses to the ground and sniff out the facts about how dogs breathe, and what you can do if your pet is suffering from breathing difficulties.
Signs of Abnormal Breathing
A healthy dog at rest will usually breathe through its nose. However, it's also entirely normal for your dog to breathe through their mouth, and this most commonly occurs when they pant. Panting is the body's way of cooling itself down — dogs can't sweat like humans, so this physiological process circulates the necessary air through the body for them to cool down.
Unfortunately, there are several illnesses and conditions that can cause your dog to suffer from breathing difficulties, and in some cases, mouth breathing can be a symptom of a deeper health problem. Common canine breathing difficulties include:
- Labored breathing (dyspnea). You may notice that your dog is working harder to breathe than may seem necessary, for example, if they haven't done any exercise or experienced any excitement yet they're still struggling to inhale a sufficient amount of air. Symptoms can include the chest and stomach moving more than normal, flaring nostrils, neck and head held low, and noisy breathing.
- Fast breathing (tachypnea). Signs to watch out for include a faster breathing rate than is normal for your pooch, a closed or partially open mouth, and shallow breathing.
- Panting. While panting is a normal way for dogs to cool themselves, it can also indicate a breathing problem. Signs include fast and shallow breathing, mouth open wide, and a lolling tongue.
If your dog isn't breathing normally, it's essential that you get your pet to the vet as soon as possible. Your vet will give your furry friend a thorough examination to determine what's wrong and whether there's cause for concern.
The Science of Dogs Breathing Through Their Mouths
A dog's respiratory system serves two purposes. The first of those is obviously to provide the oxygen your pooch needs for life. Air is inhaled through the nose or mouth and then transported down into the lungs.
There, it moves to the red blood cells, which carry that all-important oxygen to the body's major organs. At the same time as oxygen transfers to a dog's red blood cells, carbon dioxide moves the other way into the lungs, where it is then exhaled from the body through the mouth or nose.
The second function of a dog's respiratory system is to keep them cool. While dogs can sweat through their paw pads, they don't have sweat glands and they can't sweat through their skin like we do to help lower body temperature. As a result, they need to rely on this faster breathing to expel warm air from the body and replace it with cooler air from outside.
Dogs pant when they exercise, when the weather is hot, and sometimes even when they're completely content. Some dogs pant as a sign of anxiety, such as if they're about to head into an exam room to see the vet, or if they're ever in a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable.
However, abnormally heavy panting could indicate that your dog is suffering from heat stroke, an extremely serious condition that requires urgent veterinary attention. Unless your dog's body temperature is returned to a normal level quickly, heat stroke can be fatal.
Labored breathing has a variety of potential causes, including everything from having a foreign object lodged somewhere it shouldn't be to infections, allergies, heartworm, or pneumonia. Fast breathing could be caused by low oxygen levels in the blood or even anemia, so it should be thoroughly investigated by a veterinarian straight away.
Treating Breathing Difficulties
Realizing when your dog isn't breathing normally often isn't as easy as you might think. A healthy dog at rest will generally have a respiratory rate of between 20 and 34 breaths per second; however, it's also quite normal for dogs to breathe heavily or rapidly in response to physical exertion, high temperatures, excitement, and stress.
With this in mind, it's important to develop an understanding of exactly what represents normal breathing for your dog in all sorts of situations — lying on the lounge, playing in the yard, running around the dog park, and so on. This way you'll be well prepared to pick up on any telltale signs that could indicate that your pooch is not breathing properly.
If you do notice your dog having breathing difficulties, the critical thing to remember is that it could potentially be a life-threatening emergency. Don't "sleep on it" overnight and see how your dog is going in the morning — seek medical help as soon as you can.
You'll need to provide a full history of your dog's health, describe the onset of symptoms, and detail any events that could have potentially caused any problems to develop. Your veterinarian will then observe your dog's breathing and give them a thorough examination to try to pinpoint the source of the problem.
To sum up, while mouth breathing can be a medical emergency, it's also a perfectly normal behavior for a healthy dog. The key is knowing the difference between regular mouth breathing and mouth breathing that requires immediate veterinary attention.
And remember, if anyone labels your dog a mouth breather, it's not an insult — it's merely a fact of life.
By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Published: 03/18/2018, edited: 04/06/2020