The trachea, or windpipe, is the tube that transports air to and from the lungs, made up of C-shaped rings of cartilage connected by muscle. In most humans and animals, the trachea is a rigid tube and the C-shaped rings are sturdy. In some animals, however, the tracheal rings are weak and begin to collapse, resulting in a narrower airway that makes breathing difficult. While this condition can be seen in both dogs and cats, it is much more common in dogs.
Causes of Collapsed Trachea in Dogs and Cats
The causes of tracheal collapse are not well understood, however the cellular defect that leads to weakened tracheal rings is congenital (present since birth) and seems to be hereditary. The condition is seen most often in toy breed dogs, especially the Yorkshire Terrier, Pomeranian, and Toy Poodle.
Symptoms of Collapsed Trachea in Dogs and Cats
Despite the fact that the condition is congenital, many pets do not develop symptoms until middle age (around six to seven years old), and some pets may never show symptoms at all.
Common symptoms of a collapsed trachea include:
- Honking cough (this is the hallmark symptom)
- Difficulty breathing
- Exercise intolerance
- Bluish gums
In some cases, the condition may become so severe that the pet collapses or shows extreme signs of distress. This requires immediate veterinary attention.
Certain factors may bring about or exasperate the symptoms. These factors include:
- Irritants (e.g., smoke or dust)
- Hot or humid weather
Treatment for Collapsed Trachea in Dogs and Cats
While a honking cough strongly suggests a collapsed trachea, testing is often required for a definitive diagnosis. Testing may simply mean an x-ray to reveal the collapsed trachea. In less obvious cases, however, the veterinarian may order a fluoroscopy, which is a real-time moving x-ray that displays the structure of the trachea as the pet inhales and exhales.
If your veterinarian diagnoses your pet with a collapsed trachea, the next step will be treatment. Treatment may include one or more of the following:
- Cough suppressants to relieve the honking cough.
- Antibiotics if a secondary infection has occurred as a result of the collapsed trachea.
- Treat any of the secondary factors listed above that may be contributing to your pet’s condition. This may mean avoiding situations in which your pet gets overexcited, quitting smoking, purchasing an air conditioning unit, or starting your pet on a weight loss plan.
- Corticosteroids such as Prednisone can work to reduce mucus secretion and control inflammation. However, this is usually a short term treatment, as long term use of corticosteroids can further weaken the trachea.
- Bronchodilators such as Theophylline and Terbutaline are sometimes used to dilate the lower airway. This results in less pressure on the chest during inhalation and reduced collapse of the trachea.
- Switch your pet from a regular collar to a harness to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the trachea.
Most pets respond well to medication and management of secondary factors. However, pets who do not improve after several weeks of treatment or whose condition is affecting their quality of life may require surgery. The most common procedure involves the application of prosthetic rings to the outside of the trachea. This surgery has a relatively high success rate, especially in pets under six years of age. However, it is a specialized and often costly ordeal.
Your veterinarian will determine which treatment option is best for your pet.
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