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Care Guide

About Care Guides[x] These care guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions, tests, and procedures, as well as to provide basic information about pet care. They are based on the most up-to-date, documented information, recommendations, and guidelines available in the United States at the time of writing. Pharmaceutical product licensing, availability, and usage recommendations are based on US product information. Use the Download Handout button to generate a PDF for printing or e-mailing to your clients.

Respiratory Distress

    • Respiratory distress refers to abnormal effort, rate, or rhythm when a pet tries to breathe.
    • Most types of respiratory distress are considered medical emergencies, so if you notice any changes in your pet’s breathing, contact your veterinarian right away.
    • A variety of conditions can cause respiratory distress, and many of them are treatable or manageable. The best way to improve your pet’s chances of surviving an episode of respiratory distress is to seek immediate veterinary care if you notice any breathing abnormalities.             

    What Is Respiratory Distress?

    Generally, the term respiratory distress describes abnormalities in effort, rate, or rhythm when a pet tries to breathe. It can range from a very obvious inability to breathe (as with an airway blockage) to very subtle alterations in breathing rate or effort. If you notice any changes in your pet’s breathing, contact your veterinarian right away. Most types of respiratory distress are considered medical emergencies, so getting your pet to a veterinarian can literally mean the difference between life and death.                             

    What Causes Respiratory Distress?

    The respiratory tract includes the nostrils and nasal passages, the cartilages and other structures at the back of the throat, the trachea (the main airway leading to the lungs), the bronchi (which branch from the trachea and enter the lungs), and smaller structures within the lungs that participate in respiration. Conditions affecting any of these structures can cause abnormal breathing. Examples include airway obstructions, tumors, infection or inflammation, congenital deformities, parasitic infections (like heartworm disease), trauma, smoke inhalation, and exposure to certain toxins. Specific respiratory conditions, such as laryngeal paralysis, collapsing trachea, and feline asthma are frequently associated with respiratory difficulty.

    Additionally, diseases outside the respiratory tract can affect your pet’s breathing. For example, a large abdominal tumor may affect movement of the diaphragm or cause increased pressure in the abdomen that contributes to breathing difficulty. Pets that are in pain may pant or exhibit other respiratory changes. Pets with heart disease may cough or experience breathing difficulty. Some neurologic disorders can affect breathing ability, and some metabolic disorders (such as Cushing’s disease, a condition affecting the adrenal gland) can cause excessive panting or other respiratory changes.

    What Are the Clinical Signs?

    The clinical signs of respiratory distress can be very subtle (like a pet that struggles to complete a normal daily walk) or extremely pronounced. They include the following:

    • Reluctance or inability to exercise
    • Unusual noises during breathing (including wheezing or rattling)
    • Open-mouth breathing
    • Rapid or shallow breathing
    • Exaggerated chest or abdominal movements while inhaling or exhaling
    • Excessive panting
    • Discolored tongue and/or gums (pale or blue-tinged)
    • Extending the neck to breathe
    • Holding the elbows out to the side while standing, sitting, or walking

    If clinical signs of respiratory distress are subtle and/or chronic, it can be harder to tell if your pet is actually in trouble. For example, a cat with asthma may have clinical signs that start slowly and worsen over a period of weeks. In these cases, it is important to be aware of your pet’s demeanor on a daily basis, since mild changes may be difficult to notice. Don’t forget to also pay attention to things like changes in appetite, attitude, or activity level and report any suspicious changes to your veterinarian.     

    How Is Respiratory Distress Diagnosed and Treated?

    Most cases of respiratory distress are medical emergencies. If your pet is in severe distress, emergency treatment may be required while the pet is being examined and diagnostic tests are being performed. Examples of emergency care may include oxygen administration or medications to open airways and improve breathing.  Some pets panic when they can’t breathe, so mild sedation may be necessary to help calm the pet. If the pet’s condition is critical, full physical examination and diagnostic testing may need to be postponed until the pet can be stabilized enough to undergo these procedures.

    Diagnostic evaluation begins with a medical history and physical examination. Your veterinarian can assess breathing effort, the color of your pet’s gums and tongue, and other variables to help determine how serious the condition is. He or she will also use a stethoscope to listen to your pet’s heart, lungs, and airways.

    Basic diagnostic testing may include x-rays, blood work (such as a chemistry panel and complete blood cell count or CBC), and ultrasound examination of the heart and other structures in the chest. Testing for specific conditions, like heartworm disease, may also be recommended. 

    Definitive treatment depends largely on the underlying reason for the respiratory distress, the overall condition of the pet, and the pet’s response to initial emergency treatment.

    The prognosis (expected outcome) for pets with respiratory distress also depends on the underlying cause and response to treatment. Many causes (such as foreign body obstruction) are treatable; others (such as feline asthma or collapsing trachea) may be manageable but not necessarily curable.

    The best way to improve your pet’s chances of surviving an episode of respiratory distress is to seek immediate veterinary care if you notice any breathing abnormalities.