First Aid & Emergency Care for Breathing Problems in Pets

Estimated Reading Time 5 minutes
First Aid & Emergency Care for Breathing Problems in Pets

Emergencies are something we all dread. No pet parent wants to experience an emergency with their canine or feline buddy. Unfortunately, emergencies can happen despite all the necessary precautions taken. That’s why pet parents need to be familiar with basic first aid and CPR. This knowledge can mean life or death for pets that suffer from emergency problems such as breathing difficulties. Continue reading to learn how to identify the signs of breathing difficulties in pets and how to help animals suffering from them.

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Causes of Breathing Problems in Pets

Many conditions can cause breathing problems in both dogs and cats. The main part of the animal’s body responsible for breathing and oxygenation is the respiratory system. This is also the most commonly affected organ system in the majority of breathing difficulty cases in both dogs and cats.

Therefore, a common cause of breathing difficulties in pets is respiratory infections. This can be due to bacterial pathogens like Chlamydia in cats, viruses like canine distemper in dogs, or fungal spores such as Aspergillosis. It can also be classified as a primary respiratory infection or secondary to an underlying health condition.

Infections like these cause severe inflammation of the pet’s respiratory tract, resulting in the narrowing of the airways. In some cases, the lining of the respiratory tract produces mucus in response to the infection, obstructing the airways and resulting in dogs and cats not being able to breathe properly.

In severe cases, the infection can spread from the upper respiratory tract to the lungs, causing pneumonia. This leads to congestion of the lungs and causes inefficient oxygen exchange during breathing, which results in severe breathing problems in pets.

Another common cause of breathing problems in dogs and cats is cardiovascular disease. Their respiratory and cardiovascular system are closely related to each other in terms of physiological function and any condition that affects the latter results in breathing problems for both dogs and cats.

Heart disease in both dogs and cats is characterized by the weakness of heart muscles causing insufficient blood circulation throughout the animal’s body. Since the blood’s primary function is to deliver oxygen to different tissues and organs, insufficient circulation results in decreased oxygenation of all organs. The body tries to compensate for the decreased circulation by retaining water in the system, which leads to congestion and ultimately causes breathing problems for pets.

Breathing problems can also be due to mechanical or anatomical changes in the respiratory tract. Obstruction of the upper airways due to foreign body obstruction is another leading cause of breathing difficulties in dogs and cats. It can be due to food lodged in the oral cavity or upper airways, or tumors that partially or completely obstruct the respiratory tract.

Symptoms of Respiratory Distress in Dogs and Cats

Knowing if your pet is suffering from respiratory distress is the first step in helping them during these emergencies. A dog or cat will show increased breathing effort, usually characterized by a rapid and shallow breathing pattern when they’re having difficulty breathing. Loud breathing noises can also be heard when an animal is having problems breathing.

In cats, open-mouth breathing is indicative of breathing difficulties because this does not normally happen in healthy felines. In severe cases, the animal’s gums will turn blue (cyanosis) due to the lack of oxygenation and compromised blood circulation.

If you observe any of these signs, your pet must receive medical attention immediately. Your vet will try to determine what’s causing the breathing problem and will recommend treatments based on their findings. If a veterinary professional is not readily available, there are measures pet owners can do at home to help alleviate the condition and give the pet more time until they are brought to the nearest emergency hospital for proper treatment.

What to Do if Your Pet is Having Trouble Breathing

In an emergency involving compromised breathing in pets, it’s important as a pet owner that you stay calm to help the animal. When you see your pet not able to breathe properly, first put them in a quiet, cool place to reduce environmental stress and factors that can worsen the condition.

You can initially check your pet’s mouth for any signs of foreign body obstruction. If the obstruction is at the level of the oral cavity, gently swipe away and remove the obstruction using your hands to help the animal breathe. For obstructions located deeper in the respiratory tract, you can perform the Heimlich maneuver to help dislodge the foreign body.

The Heimlich maneuver can be done by applying short, forceful pressure on the abdomen of the animal, behind the rib cage. For smaller dogs and cats, you can turn them over and apply hard pressure in the upper abdominal area. For larger dogs, putting your arms around the abdomen and applying pressure behind the rib cage with a closed fist can help dislodge the obstruction.

If the dog stops breathing altogether, you can perform rescue breathing to help introduce oxygen into the animal’s lungs and stimulate the breathing reflex again. This can be done by closing the animal’s mouth and gently breathing into its nostrils. If done correctly, you should see the animal’s lungs expand as you breathe into its nostrils. This has to be done around 10 times per minute with short breaks after 3 to 5 full breathes to observe if the animal’s breathing has returned.

It is important to keep in mind then immediate veterinary intervention is still important, and the measures mentioned should be done while in transit to the nearest veterinary emergency service for appropriate treatment.

Read more:

First Aid for Drowning Pets

Why is my dog panting?

6 Tips to Avoid Common Pet Emergencies in the Summer

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Published: 3/23/2022
Last updated: 4/8/2022
Dr. Sheena Haney, Veterinarian

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