As temperatures rise, so too do the numbers of dogs we see panting. We tend to take this behavior for granted simply because it seems so darned normal. But, is it always normal? While most panting occurs as a means of counteracting overheating (the canine version of sweating), it can also be prompted for a whole host of other reasons.
Dogs rely on panting as their primary means for getting rid of excess body heat. Panting allows evaporation of water and heat across the moist surfaces of the lungs, tongue, and surfaces within the mouth. So it makes physiologic sense for a dog to pant on a hot day or following exercise. Dogs do have sweat glands on the undersides of their paws and within their ears, but these glands really have only minimal cooling capabilities.
Panting is considered abnormal when it occurs for reasons other than heat dissipation, and can be recognized by one or more of the following characteristics:
- Appears excessive compared to the dog’s normal panting pattern
- Occurs at inappropriate times (when the dog is not overly warm)
- Sounds raspier, louder, or harsher than normal
- Occurs with more exertion than normal
Listed below are some of the more common causes of abnormal panting:
1. Anxiety, stress or fear
Panting is one of the primary behaviors exhibited by anxious, stressed, or fearful dogs. This “behavioral panting” may be accompanied by other fear or stress indicators such as:
- Reclusive behavior
- A tucked tail
- Clingy behavior
- Flattened ears
- Lip licking
- A crouched posture
- Dilated pupils
- Food refusal
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
Excessive panting is a common symptom of discomfort or pain. In fact, dogs who are uncomfortable often exhibit panting well before more obvious indicators of pain, such as whining or limping, arise.
3. Heart failure
When the heart is doing an inadequate job of pumping blood around the body, the tissues become deprived of oxygen. One of the best ways to correct this oxygen depletion is by increasing the respiratory rate, and this often results in panting.
4. Lung disease
The lungs are where the transfer of oxygen to the bloodstream takes place. When lung disease prevents this from occurring, oxygen deprivation results. Just as is the case with heart failure, the natural response of the dog is to breathe faster and harder which translates into excessive and exertional panting.
Anemia is defined as a decrease in the red blood cell count. Given that red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen to the body’s tissues, it makes sense that moderate or severe anemia results in oxygen deprivation. Just as is the case with heart failure and lung disease, the dog’s natural response to this is escalated respirations and panting.
6. Laryngeal paralysis
The larynx is the opening to the windpipe (trachea). It contains cartilage flaps that operate like saloon doors- opening wide during breathing and closing during swallowing. With laryngeal paralysis, one or both of the laryngeal cartilages fail to open normally, creating turbulent, restricted airflow and panting that is often raspy sounding and much louder than usual.
7. Cushing’s disease
Cushing’s disease is a hormonal imbalance that occurs primarily in middle aged and older dogs. It is caused by the overproduction of cortisone (steroids) by the adrenal glands. One of the earliest and most common symptoms of this disease is excessive and inappropriate panting. Successful treatment of the Cushing’s disease typically resolves the abnormal panting.
8. Cortisone (steroid) therapy
Treatment with prednisone, prednisolone, or other forms of cortisone mimics Cushing’s disease (see above). Many dogs receiving steroids demonstrate excessive and inappropriate panting that typically goes away within a few weeks after the medication is discontinued.
Abnormal panting deserves attention!
Observation of abnormal panting should prompt an office visit with your veterinarian, even if everything else about your dog appears to be perfectly normal. The sooner the cause of the abnormal panting is discovered, the greater the likelihood of a good outcome.
Questions for your veterinarian
- Is my dog’s panting normal or abnormal?
- What can be done to determine the cause of my dog’s abnormal panting?
- What can be done to treat the cause of my dog’s abnormal panting?