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If you've noticed your dog wheezing or having shortness of breath, you're probably curious if dogs can have asthma.
While dogs do not get asthma as we know it, they can develop a similar condition called "allergic bronchitis" in response to environmental irritants. Learn more about the clinical signs and what to do if you suspect that your dog has allergic bronchitis.
What's the difference between asthma and bronchitis?
Asthma is a condition defined by the constriction, or narrowing, of small branching airways in the lungs called bronchi in response to environmental allergens and has been documented in both horses and cats, in addition to people. While dogs can certainly react to environmental irritants, their lungs respond differently than the other species mentioned. When dogs are exposed to environmental irritants, they do not actually develop any constriction of their airways and, in turn, do not experience true "asthmatic attacks." Instead, their airways become inflamed, causing them to cough and exhibit other signs of respiratory disease that you may notice at home.
Clinical Signs of Allergic Bronchitis
It's uncommon that a dog parent will intuitively know their dog has bronchitis because there are so many causes of respiratory illness. Some of the more common clinical signs of bronchitis in dogs include:
- A cough which may be dry or produce phlegm
- Wheezing with or without a whistle sound
- Rapid, shallow breaths
- Open-mouth breathing (this one can be particularly tricky as all dogs pant)
- Pale-colored gums in more severe cases
- Exercise intolerance
- Abdominal component to breathing, as the ab muscles work overtime to force air in and out
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss in moderate to severe cases
- Gagging or retching
Normal panting is typically not associated with some of the other clinical signs, with the exception of some minor abdominal movement in heavy panting on a hot summer day. If panting seems out of the ordinary, includes gagging and retching, or pale or blue colored gums, there is likely something else at work that warrants a prompt veterinary evaluation. Therefore, when trying to answer the question of whether or not your dog has bronchitis, it's important to keep track of how long your dog has been experiencing some of the common signs of bronchitis.
Bronchitis affects dogs regardless of gender. Adult and middle-aged dogs are most often affected. Small and toy breed dogs, as well as cocker spaniels, are more at risk for developing bronchitis than other breeds. Obesity also exacerbates underlying respiratory disease.
Clinical signs of dog bronchitis may be similar to other respiratory illnesses, though the treatments are quite different. This makes an accurate diagnosis crucial.
Can dogs have bronchitis? Here are some common dog illnesses that imitate bronchitis in dogs:
- Heartworm infection
- Lungworm infection
- Kennel cough
- Tracheal collapse
- Heart failure
- Heart disease
When bronchitis is suspected, chest X-rays are typically taken, but they don't always show changes to the lungs. According to Merck Veterinary Manual, X-rays of the neck are usually recommended as well. Other tests that may be recommended include bloodwork to check organ function, an ultrasound to evaluate heart function, a heartworm test, a fecal test, and advanced imaging of the lungs with CT scans and/or bronchoscopy, which involves passing a small camera into the airways under anesthesia. Along with bronchoscopy, dogs suspected of bronchitis may also have a procedure known as an airway lavage performed in which a small of sterile water is used to wash the airways and collect cells for evaluation of inflammation under a microscope and bacterial cultures.
Treatment of Bronchitis in Dogs
If your dog is having trouble breathing, you should seek care right away as they made need oxygen therapy to help them breathe comfortably.
Unfortunately, chronic bronchitis is not reversible once it has developed. However, proper treatment can help significantly improve inflammation in the lungs, which in turn slows the rate of disease progression and further damage to lung tissue. Additionally, another primary goal of therapy is to ensure your pup is maintaining a good quality of life at home with their chronic bronchitis.
Steroids are commonly prescribed to help reduce inflammation in the lungs. Depending on the severity of your dog's disease, they may be on steroids for a short period of time, or they may stay on them lifelong. For dogs requiring long-term steroid therapy, your vet may transition your dog to an inhaled steroid to minimize the side effects of these medications on other body systems. Amazingly, dogs can be trained to use an inhaler quite easily and most tolerate it quite well. Your vet may also prescribe cough suppressant medication to help keep your pet feeling comfortable at home.
Keen in mind, routine vet appointments are necessary to determine if treatment methods are successful or need to be altered. At these appointments, some diagnostics tests may need to be repeated in order to monitor your dog's physical condition.
Prevention of Canine Bronchitis
While it isn't possible to entirely eliminate your dog's risk for developing bronchitis, you can take steps to decrease their odds. Some preventative steps include:
- Feeding your dog high-quality food to help them maintain an ideal weight.
- Removing any potential triggers from your dog's environment, such as pollen, plants, mold, dust mites, household cleaners and air fresheners. This process can take trial and error, but it's essential to not only manage asthma, but also help prevent it in the first place. Seek recommendations from your vet for how to reduce environmental pollen. A high quality air filter may be an investment you want to consider.
- Other scenarios are easier to avoid, such as boarding your dog or choosing a new temporary home for them during home renovation projects with excessive dust.
When it comes to understanding whether dogs can have bronchitis or not, it's important to understand the clinical signs of bronchitis and to be aware of other respiratory conditions that could be confused for bronchitis. Be sure to speak with your local vet to find the best course of treatment for your favorite furry friend.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible is a small-animal veterinarian and veterinary writer. She has won numerous awards for her commitment to pet owner education and is considered a leading veterinary telehealth expert.