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Just like in people, your dog breathes through a windpipe (trachea) composed of a stack of rings made of cartilage. If you run your finger down the front of your own neck, you may feel the subtle bumps of your own cartilaginous rings. But rather than forming a complete circle, the cartilage in your dog’s windpipe is C-shaped with a membrane running down the back to complete the tube. This structure allows flexibility but also plays a role in a disease process that results in the clinical condition known as tracheal collapse.
What Causes the Trachea to Collapse?
Over time, the components of the cartilage rings can become depleted, causing them to lose any rigidity which distorts their shape. This causes flattening of the ‘C’ and stretching of the membrane; resulting in a collapse of the tracheal tube during inhalation or exhalation. You might have seen this mimicked when drinking through a paper straw that softens with use. When you try to suck up the drink, it collapses on itself, closing off the tube and preventing flow.
The body’s normal reaction to airway irritation is either to cough, or to produce a thin mucus that helps move the irritant up and out of the airway. The collapse of the trachea triggers an uncontrollable, and sometimes violent, cough. As the collapse continues over time and becomes chronic, coughing triggers inflammation, and mucus thickens. This triggers more coughing which produces more inflammation. Symptomatic tracheal collapse becomes a cycle of disease that if left untreated, can progressively worsen over time.
How Can Tracheal Collapse Affect My Dog?
Although it is not fully understood why an individual will develop this condition, it mainly affects toy and small breed dogs. Yorkshire Terriers are particularly prone, but other commonly affected breeds include Maltese Terriers, Chihuahuas, and Pomeranians. The symptoms your dog will display depends on the severity of the condition, which can be localised to a portion of the trachea or may be generalised and include parts of the bronchi, the branching extensions of the windpipe as they enter the lungs.
In milder cases, your dog may just show a mild irritation with its breathing and have a dry cough, sometimes described as a ‘goose cough’ because it can sound like the honking of geese. For the collapse of the trachea to occur, there needs to be an intake or an output of breath. Therefore, anything that increases your dog’s breathing rate or depth can make a collapse more likely, or more severe. You may notice your dog coughs more with exercise, in hot weather, or when he or she is particularly excited or even when they are stressed.
What is worth noting, is that if the condition becomes serious enough, your dog could become distressed and struggle for breath if an episode lasts too long or blocks the airway. If you are ever concerned with your dog’s breathing ability or comfort, contact your vet clinic immediately. Your vet can provide emergency treatment if necessary and advise on the best way to diagnose your animal’s condition. As well as create a management plan that best works for your dog, and you.
How Is It Diagnosed?
There are many reasons why your dog may be coughing or feeling short of breath, so it is important to contact your vet to get to the root cause of the problem. Tracheal collapse is rare in large breed dogs. So it is likely to be a different problem if your dog is not a small- or toy-breed. X-rays of the neck and chest or a camera inserted into the airway (tracheoscopy) can visualise directly if your dog’s trachea is collapsing or detect if there are other illnesses such as infection or heart disease. Occasionally, your vet may recommend additional imaging such as a CT scan.
Can I Help My Dog?
The good news is, there are several ways that you and your vet can help your pet. Although some dogs are diagnosed when they are young, most become symptomatic when they are middle-aged. This is often because of complicating factors adding to the weakened cartilage. Excess weight is a common condition that worsens the symptoms of tracheal collapse. So either preventing weight gain before it becomes a problem or getting assistance from your veterinary team to combat obesity if this is an issue, can help alleviate the extra stress on the airway from carrying too much fat.
Other ways to help your dog are reducing direct irritation of the windpipe. Instead of walking your dog on a collar, switching to a well-fitted harness markedly reduces pressure on the front of the neck. It is important that any harness fits your individual dog’s body shape, as a badly fitted harness may still put pressure on undesired places. If in doubt, your vet can advise what style is best for your pooch.
Additionally, affected dogs will have an extra-sensitive airway. So any smokers or vapers in the house should smoke or vape away from your dog. Strong-smelling aerosols or open fires may also set off coughing in some dogs. Changing how you use these around your dog may reduce the triggers for their symptoms.
How Is Tracheal Collapse Treated?
Following diagnosis, your vet can discuss what medication can be helpful. These typically combat airway inflammation or function as a cough suppressant to break the cycle of disease progression. Mostly, these are oral treatments, but your vet can advise if your pet may benefit from an inhaler. Depending on severity, medication may be necessary for the long-term; although some animals become less dependent on medication if complicating factors like obesity are improved.
In severe cases though, your vet may recommend surgery to artificially keep the airway open. This may involve your vet referring you to a specialist vet hospital. Like any surgery, there are risks, and some medications may not suit your pet. So you should discuss with your vet if you have questions or concerns with any treatment.
While tracheal collapse can be a significant disease in small breed dogs. Once diagnosed, it is manageable with medical and supportive care in most cases. With some lifestyle changes at home and either medication or surgery, your veterinary team can help you get your furry companion breathing better.