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Laryngeal Paralysis Is Not a Death Sentence

Posted September 24, 2013 in Dog Diseases & Conditions A-Z

Chris Longenecker, a Certified Veterinary Technician in Reading, PA, contributed to this article.

Laryngeal paralysis is a condition that severely affects a pet’s breathing. In the veterinary world, we tend to call it “Lar Par."

The larynx is the medical name for the voice box. Please note, it is larynx and not “lar-nynx” as many people call it. If you've ever had a sore throat or laryngitis, then your very own larynx was irritated. The larynx’s job is to close off after we inhale, open up when we inhale, and again shut off when we eat and drink so we don't “swallow the wrong way.” But in pets (especially dogs), when laryngeal paralysis occurs, none of these things happen. Taking a deep breath becomes impossible, and the pet basically suffocates.

Who is affected by Laryngeal Paralysis?
The typical patient is an older, large breed dog. The poster child is the Labrador, and other common breeds include Golden Retrievers and Setters.

What are the signs of Laryngeal Paralysis?
Lar Par is a very stressful condition to the patient – who obviously doesn’t understand what is going on. The dog literally suffocates. Typically, the signs are progressive. The dog pants without exercising, has noisy and labored breathing, and gets tired quickly during regular walks. Guardians may notice that their dog’s voice changes and sounds hoarse.

Unfortunately, because Lar Par most often occurs in older dogs, the signs are often mistaken for old age and arthritis, which delays treatment. Therefore, Lar Par patients are often presented to a vet when they are in real trouble, usually when they can barely breathe. This commonly happens as the weather becomes hot and humid, and obesity can exacerbate the condition. At worst, Lar Par can become life-threatening.

What causes Laryngeal Paralysis?
Most of the time, we don't know. This is called “idiopathic” Lar Par. Lar Par occurs because the nerves that control the muscles which act on the cartilage of the larynx are diseased. Typically, the condition starts on one side (“unilateral” paralysis or hemiparesis). Only when the condition affects both sides of the larynx (“bilateral” paralysis) will most pet owners realize that there is a problem.

How does a vet know my dog has Laryngeal Paralysis?
An experienced vet or surgeon will suspect Lar Par the second they walk into the exam room. To confirm the suspicion, an exam of the larynx under sedation is necessary. Under sedation, the mouth is opened and the larynx is observed. With Lar Par, the folds of the larynx will not open and close as the patient breathes in and out. The folds remain closed – paralyzed. Before this can be done safely, we perform full blood work and chest X-rays. 

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Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his website at www.DrPhilZeltzman.com, and follow him at www.facebook.com/DrZeltzman.