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The essentials

  • Know the signs — Respiratory issues and a distinct honking cough are telltale signs of dogs with a collapsed trachea.
  • It’s not all or nothing — Vets measure tracheal collapse in four grades. The more narrow the trachea and flatter the cartilage, the higher grade of collapse your dog has.
  • Treatment can help many dogs — Medications and lifestyle changes are well tolerated by many dogs and can help them live a long, comfortable life with lower grades of this condition.

Tracheal collapse is a progressive and irreversible respiratory condition that occurs when the rings of cartilage that support a dog’s windpipe (trachea) weaken and collapse. This can lead to significant breathing difficulties and a characteristic honking cough.

While the exact cause is often unknown, it may be a congenital disorder, particularly affecting certain middle-age or older small breed dogs.

Classifying a tracheal collapse

Imagine the trachea like the tunnel that runs from the base of the neck to the chest, where it splits into bronchi. The inside of the tunnel is called the lumen and it contains the C-shaped rings that give the trachea its structure. These rings are made of cartilage. The remainder of the circular trachea is covered by a thin membrane of tissue.

In tracheal collapse, the rings of cartilage weaken and flatten, and/or the membrane can sag. This results in narrowing of the trachea, and makes it difficult for your dog to get enough air into their lungs.

The severity of tracheal collapse is determined by examining the narrowing of the lumen and the flattening of the cartilage. Based on these two observations, vets classify tracheal collapse into four grades:

  • Grade 1: The tracheal lumen is reduced by approximately 25%, with the cartilage still normally shaped.
  • Grade 2: The tracheal lumen is reduced by about 50%, with partially flattened cartilage.
  • Grade 3: The tracheal lumen is reduced by around 75%, with nearly completely flat cartilage.
  • Grade 4: The tracheal lumen is totally collapsed, and the cartilage is flat.

Signs of a tracheal collapse

Unlike other conditions, signs of a tracheal collapse are hard to miss and can often be distressing. The most common symptom is a harsh, dry cough that might sound like honking. This honking sound can be triggered by excitement, exercise, drinking water, pressure on the trachea (from touch or a collar) or changes in temperature.

Other signs include difficulty breathing, coughing when being picked up or if pressure is applied to the neck, vomiting, gagging, wheezing, and turning blue.

How vets diagnose a tracheal collapse in dogs

Diagnosis starts with ruling out other conditions and verifying that your pup is, in fact, experiencing tracheal collapse. Your vet will take a thorough history and perform a physical exam and diagnostics.

Tests and tools include:

  • Chest X-ray. Imaging can help locate the collapse and rule out other conditions, such as heart disease.
  • Tracheoscopy or bronchoscopy. These tests use an instrument with a camera to examine the trachea under general anesthesia.
  • Fluoroscopy. This special type of X-ray produces real-time images as your dog breathes. The size of the trachea can vary depending on if your dog is breathing in and out, which is why sometimes tracheal collapse may not be visible on regular x-rays.
  • Other tests. Blood tests, urinalysis, white and red cell counts, chemistry panel, and heartworm testing are used to rule out other conditions.

Treating a dog’s tracheal collapse

Treatment will vary based on the severity of your dog’s collapse, but the good news is that many dogs respond well to medical management and lifestyle adjustments.

  • MedicationsCough suppressants, steroids, bronchodilators, sedatives, and in some cases antibiotics.
  • Lifestyle changes — Weight loss, using a harness instead of a collar, and avoiding airway irritants like smoke.
  • Surgery — For severe cases not responding to medical management, surgical options include placing extraluminal tracheal rings or intraluminal stents to keep the trachea open. These dogs will continue to need medical management as well.
  • Emergency treatment — If a dog is in respiratory distress they will require emergency veterinary care and hospitalization on oxygen.

Outcome and prognosis of tracheal collapse in dogs

The prognosis for dogs with tracheal collapse can vary. As it is a progressive disease, the tracheal cartilage will continue to deteriorate. However, many dogs live comfortable lives with appropriate medical and lifestyle management. Most dogs require ongoing treatment to improve the quality of life. Regular veterinary check-ups are essential to monitor the condition and adjust treatments as necessary.

Frequently asked questions

How long can a dog live with a collapsing trachea?

Dogs with tracheal collapse can live many years with proper management and treatment. The lifespan largely depends on the severity of the collapse, the effectiveness of treatments, and how well secondary infections or complications are managed. Regular veterinary care and lifestyle adjustments, such as weight management and minimizing exposure to irritants, can significantly improve the quality of life for affected dogs.

What triggers collapsed trachea in dogs?

Various factors can trigger or exacerbate tracheal collapse in dogs. Genetic predisposition plays a significant role, with certain breeds like Toy Poodles, Pomeranians, and Yorkshire Terriers being more susceptible. Obesity, environmental irritants like smoke and dust, emotional stress, excitement, physical exertion, and pressure from collars on the neck can all contribute to the condition.

Is a collapsed trachea painful for dogs?

While tracheal collapse itself may not be inherently painful, it can cause significant discomfort, anxiety, and distress due to difficulty breathing and persistent coughing. The chronic coughing can also lead to throat irritation and secondary infections, which can be painful. Proper medical management can help alleviate these symptoms and improve comfort levels.

How do you soothe a dog with a collapsed trachea?

To soothe a dog with a collapsed trachea, use a harness instead of a collar to reduce neck pressure, and administer medications like cough suppressants, bronchodilators, and anti-inflammatory drugs as prescribed by a vet. Maintaining a calm environment and minimizing stress and excitement can also help prevent coughing episodes. Keeping the dog at a healthy weight reduces respiratory strain, and avoiding exposure to irritants such as smoke, dust, and allergens is crucial. Additionally, providing a quiet, comfortable resting area can help the dog feel more at ease.