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The essentials

  • Rapid breathing during sleep is normal — Most dogs’ breathing picks up speed while they sleep, especially during the REM cycle. 
  • Puppies breathe faster while awake or asleep — A puppy’s typical resting respiratory rate is typically 15-40 breaths per minute compared with 10-30 breaths per minute in an adult dog. 
  • Changes in a dog’s breathing pattern may signal health problems —  Rapid or labored breathing can be due to heart or lung disease or another health condition. 

Dogs experience the same rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep that humans do. REM sleep means a dog’s brain engages in a higher level of activity, which requires more energy. Dogs breathe faster to take in more oxygen. You’ll especially notice this in young pups. Puppies dream more vividly, so they typically breathe faster than adult dogs. 

In most cases, your dog’s rapid breathing is no cause for concern. However, prolonged signs of rapid or labored breathing may indicate an underlying problem that requires medical attention.

How to determine if your dog is breathing at a normal rate

You can conduct a quick at-home test to determine if your dog’s respiratory rate falls within normal limits. Set a timer for 30 seconds on your watch or phone. Count one breath when your dog’s chest has moved in and out one time and add up how many breaths occur during those 30 seconds. Next, multiply the number of breaths by two to get the number of breaths for one minute. If the number is far greater than 30 per minute, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Potential causes for a dog’s rapid breathing

If you just returned from a brisk run in the park with Fido on a warm day, his breathing may be faster. But several conditions can cause a dog’s rapid breathing, some more serious than others.

  • Breed characteristics. Dogs with squished faces, or brachycephalic dog breeds such as pugs and American bulldogs, are more susceptible to breathing problems.
  • Heatstroke. Usually signified by rapid panting and a body temperature above 103 degrees, heat exhaustion is the precursor to heatstroke, which can be fatal in dogs. Look for other signs of heat exhaustion such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, glazed eyes, lack of responsiveness or coordination, drooling, or rapid heart rate.
  • Anemia. Anemia refers to a reduced number of red blood cells or hemoglobin (and sometimes both) circulating in your dog’s bloodstream. The most obvious signs are pale pink or white gums, compared to healthy pink ones. A dog that tires easily during exercise may also be anemic. 
  • Poisoning. Certain foods such as onions, onion powder, and garlic, which are found in many dishes, are toxic to dogs. Symptoms may include an increased heart rate and heavy panting. 
  • Heart failure. Just like humans, when a dog’s heart is unable to pump enough blood to the body, it results in heart failure. There are several signs of heart failure in dogs, including labored and rapid breathing, even while resting. 
  • Fluid in the lungs. Pleural effusion, or fluid within the chest cavity, is caused by several conditions including heart failure and cancer. Dogs with pleural effusion often have rapid, shallow breathing. 
  • Asthma. Dogs can suffer from asthma similar to that of humans. It’s typically caused by an allergic reaction that affects the airways and can result in difficulty breathing, excessive panting, coughing, and wheezing. Older dogs and certain smaller breeds, such as pugs, American bulldogs, and Maltese, are more prone to asthma. 
  • Upper respiratory infections. Canine influenza and canine infectious tracheobronchitis also called kennel cough are highly contagious respiratory diseases. Any upper respiratory infection may cause pneumonia, especially in young or immunocompromised dogs. When a dog has pneumonia, rapid or labored breathing may occur.
  • Trachea issues. A tracheal collapse makes it difficult for air to get to a dog’s lungs. It typically affects middle-aged and older dogs and is a progressive disease. The most common sign is a persistent, dry, harsh cough that may sound like a goose honk. When a dog has a severe case of collapsing trachea, it can have difficulty breathing properly and may have an increased respiratory rate.
  • Smoke inhalation. Both small and large quantities of smoke inhalation can affect your dog’s airways, lungs, and overall health. Dogs exposed to smoke from a fire can exhibit some amount of respiratory distress, including labored breathing, depending upon how much smoke was inhaled. 
  • Lung disease. Dogs can contract canine chronic bronchitis, a long-term condition that causes inflammation in the respiratory system. Over time, it results in permanent lung damage. Signs include coughing, difficulty breathing, wheezing, or other abnormal lung sounds.
  • Cancer. Dogs can develop both benign and malignant tumors in the lungs or develop an abdominal mass that may apply pressure to the diaphragm. Both cases can cause labored or rapid breathing.  Other symptoms may include lethargy, pale gums, decreased appetite, and coughing.  
  • Trauma.  When a dog has trauma to the chest cavity (for instance, one hit by a car), this can also cause abnormal breathing – labored, rapid, or shallow breathing.  
  • Pain. Signs that your dog is in pain and may have incurred an injury include excessive panting. They also may whine, whimper, groan, yelp, or howl to indicate distress .
  • Medication side effects. Certain medications to treat conditions in your dog such as steroids can result in rapid breathing or panting. 
  • Overexertion. If your dog is running or playing vigorously, they might pant. This is an indicator they need to slow down. Be sure to supply your dog with cool water after heavy exercise.

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What to do if your dog shows signs of rapid breathing while sleeping

Again, while most rapid breathing during sleep isn’t a reason for alarm, there are steps you can take to ensure your dog is OK.

Wake them up — Gently stir your dog awake to see if the rapid breathing was just a symptom of a dream. Be careful not to over-excite them, especially if they’re waking up from the REM stage, as it can be very disorienting. 

Check for other symptoms — For example, if rapid breathing while sleeping pairs with stomach issues, it could indicate abdominal pain. Additionally, pale or discolored gums in conjunction with rapid breathing could indicate anemia. 

Seek a vet’s advice — If your dog is showing other symptoms or they’re breathing fast throughout much of the night, contact your local emergency vet or regular veterinarian to schedule an appointment. 

When to seek a vet’s care for rapid breathing

Rapid breathing on its own usually does not cause concern for a healthy dog. However, if your dog starts to pant or breathe rapidly in addition to other symptoms, it could indicate an underlying health condition such as asthma, trachea issues, or even cancer. It could mean they’re struggling to get enough oxygen. If your dog’s fast breathing continues throughout the day and not just when sleeping, this warrants a call to the vet.

Frequently asked questions

Is it normal for my dog to breathe rapidly while sleeping?

Yes. Rapid breathing while sleeping usually means your pup is having active dreams. However, don’t ignore any breathing that’s out of the ordinary for your dog, including wheezing, labored breathing, or open-mouthed breathing with nostrils extended. It could signal a medical condition that needs attention. Take a video of your dog’s breathing to send to your local veterinarian for review.

Do some dog breeds breathe faster than others? 

Yes. Smaller dogs tend to breathe more rapidly due to a faster resting heart rate. Also, certain breeds, including the Pekingese, pug, and American bulldog, have narrow nostrils that can complicate breathing.  

Why is my dog breathing fast? 

Normally, your furry friend is breathing fast because they’re trying to get extra oxygen while sleeping or during exercise. There are a range of health conditions like heatstroke and Cushing’s disease, as well as certain medications like steroids that can cause dogs to pant.