How Common Is Laryngeal Paralysis In Dogs And Cats? Breathing Struggles In Dogs

Puppy in a basket

Pets that seem to struggle to catch their breath may be suffering from a serious respiratory condition that could threaten their life.

Strong, healthy dogs pant; they may even make strange noises while breathing. But dogs that strain to take in air or utter harsh, rasping sounds with each labored inhale are not displaying normal, healthy behavior. Breathing like that could be a sign that the muscles within your pet’s voice box are not working. This makes it hard for pets to get enough air, and without proper treatment, it could lead to suffocation.

If you start to notice significant changes in how your pet is breathing, don’t assume it’s just “what pets do.” Make sure it’s not a serious condition known as laryngeal paralysis.

Causes of Laryngeal Paralysis

Voice box paralysis occasionally affects cats, but is much more likely to strike canines. Some dogs are born with laryngeal paralysis, but in most instances it strikes older, large breed dogs such as St. Bernards, Newfoundlands, Irish setters, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers.

In cases of acquired laryngeal paralysis, the reasons for the condition are often not known but may include:

  • general paralysis
  • abnormalities of the nerves around the voice box, throat, trachea, or other
  • organs
  • chest infections
  • cancer of the larynx or other organs involved in regulating breathing
  • nervous system disorder
  • muscle abnormality
  • hormone deficiencies
  • trauma to the voice box or throat

Laryngeal Paralysis Symptoms in Dogs and Cats

The main sign that pets are suffering from laryngeal paralysis is that they can’t catch their breath. The walls of the airway don’t open so when a dog or cat inhales, the airway pulls together. In severe cases they will be sucked closed. You may hear hoarse or raspy sounds when your dog breathes or barks. Panting becomes more pronounced and intense.

As the condition worsens, you may notice your pet must work harder for each breath, the noise that accompanies inhales becomes louder, and your pet has a strained or anxious look when trying to breathe.

Pets with laryngeal paralysis are likely to become increasingly tired after even minor exercise such as a simple walk around the block.

In serious cases of paralysis of the voice box, pets may:

  • develop a blue or gray colored tongue and gums (signs that your pet isn’t getting enough oxygen)
  • suddenly collapse
  • suffocate and die due to lack of oxygen

To diagnosis the condition, your vet will need to examine your pet’s voice box, which should be done under general anesthesia.

Treatment Options for Pets With Laryngeal Paralysis

In cases where the laryngeal paralysis is mild, your vet may be able to manage the condition with anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, and bronchodilators. Your pet will need to avoid hot temperatures, since getting overheated can make symptoms worse.

Pets suffering from life-threatening symptoms of this type of paralysis may require emergency care. Your pet would be sedated, and, if needed, an airway tube inserted to allow your pet to get oxygen.

Surgery is more likely to be a long-term solution for many patients. The most effective procedure is a tieback of the arytenoid cartilage, which will create a permanent open position in the airway: one side of the airway is pulled back (only partially to lower the risk that fluid or food might enter the respiratory tract).

After surgery, a pet who seemed to be slowing down and “getting old” should begin to have more life and energy as oxygen intake increases. There may be changes in your dog’s bark and your pet may still pant loudly, but overall, the prognosis after treatment for laryngeal paralysis is often very good.

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