When a pet cannot breathe, also known as respiratory distress, this can be one of the most frightening experiences a pet owner can experience. If you notice your pet having breathing difficulty, they should be brought to a veterinary facility as quickly as possible. Anxiety can worsen any difficult breathing situation, so when transporting a pet who is having trouble breathing to a veterinary facility, try to keep them as calm and quiet as possible. This may involve wrapping them in a blanket for comfort or having a passenger hold them during transport.
Once you arrive at a veterinary facility, ensure that the front staff knows that your pet is having difficulty breathing; the veterinary staff will likely take your pet immediately to the treatment area for triage to assess how sick they are and if they need immediate care. While it can be scary to hand your pet over to the veterinary staff as you are concerned about them (and rightfully so!), it is imperative that your pet gets appropriate treatment as quickly as possible. A pet in respiratory distress can pass away quickly without appropriate therapy. This will likely involve giving your pet oxygen therapy and possibly a sedative to take anxiety away.
There are many different conditions that can trigger respiratory distress, all of which will present looking the same to the veterinarian taking care of your pet. This can make respiratory distress cases challenging from a treatment perspective.
Examples of broad causes of respiratory distress:
Heart disease – Congestive heart failure secondary to primary heart disease (mitral valve disease, dilated cardiomyopathy, etc.), irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion), etc. This process prevents normal blood flow and oxygen delivery to the body, leading to respiratory distress.
Primary lung disease – Infection of the lungs (pneumonia), trauma to the lungs, such as from being hit by a car (pulmonary contusions), masses in the lungs, etc. This deprives the lungs of normal tissue to absorb oxygen, leading to respiratory distress.
Pleural disease – Disease of the space lining the lungs and chest cavity, which can fill with fluid (pleural effusion) secondary to infection, trauma, cancer, etc. This fluid buildup doesn’t allow the lungs to expand, leading to respiratory distress.
Metabolic disease – Liver disease, kidney disease, hormonal disorders (unregulated diabetes mellitus and Cushing’s disease), etc. can trigger discomfort and electrolyte abnormalities that lead to respiratory distress.
With so many possibilities leading to respiratory distress, your veterinarian will need to perform diagnostics to try to distinguish from all these possible causes. The most common diagnostics are baseline bloodwork, which would help identify metabolic disease, as well as chest radiographs, which would help differentiate heart disease, primary lung disease, and pleural disease. Further diagnostics could be recommended after that based on what is found (such as an ultrasound of the heart (echocardiogram) to describe what type of heart disease is present). Your veterinarian will guide you about the expected treatment plan, whether the underlying cause can be cured, and your pet’s long-term prognosis with the underlying cause once it has been identified.
It is always difficult to keep a calm and focused mind when a pet has difficulty breathing while there are many unknowns as to what is happening to your pet. Hopefully, this information provides you some piece of mind of what to expect and prepare for if your pet has difficulty breathing.