Collapsing trachea is a chronic condition found in dogs, especially older dogs and toy breeds, that causes a dry, hacking cough and difficulty breathing. It starts in the trachea (also known as the windpipe), which is a long tube made of cartilage that carries air from the nose and mouth down into the lungs.
A normal, healthy trachea is made up of small, C-shaped rings of cartilage that are covered by a thin membrane and held in place by connective muscle. These rings help keep the airway open wide while a dog is breathing. Sometimes, either due to aging or a deformity that’s present at birth, these rings can become weak and start to flatten out. When this happens, the membrane covering the trachea can droop inward, causing irritation and a constant tickle in the dog’s throat that triggers a persistent cough. Eventually, the dog’s trachea can actually collapse in on itself, leaving the dog struggling to breathe and gasping for air.
What Causes Collapsing Trachea?
Collapsing trachea can be caused by a hereditary genetic defect where a dog’s cartilage rings are not formed correctly. It’s also thought that some dogs are born with a deficiency of chondroitin, calcium, and glycoproteins, which are some of the substances that make up the cartilage rings.
But not all dogs with tracheal collapse are born with defective tracheal rings. In some cases, collapsing trachea can develop as a complication of Cushing’s disease, chronic respiratory disease, or heart disease.
Collapsing trachea is most commonly found in toy breeds, particularly Pomeranians, Yorkshire Terriers, Pugs, Chihuahuas, Malteses, Shih Tzus, Lhasa Apsos, Bichon Frises, and Toy Poodles. Brachycephalic breeds like Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Pekingeses, and French Bulldogs can also be affected. However, any dog, regardless of breed or age, can develop collapsing trachea.
Symptoms Of Collapsing Trachea
By far the most common sign of collapsing trachea is a dry, persistent “goose honk” cough that happens when a dog exerts himself or gets excited, or whenever there’s pressure placed on the dog’s trachea (like when his collar is grabbed or he pulls on the leash).
Other signs can include:
- Difficulty breathing, even at rest
- Exercise intolerance
- Wheezing sound when breathing in
- Turning blue when excited or stressed
- Intolerance to heat
- Fainting after stress or exercise
- Gagging or vomiting while eating or drinking
It’s important to be able to distinguish between collapsing trachea and a condition known as reverse sneezing, since they can sound similar. In reverse sneezing, a dog experiences a temporary spasm in his soft palate (the fleshy area in the back of the throat), which causes him to rapidly suck in air through his nose and make a loud, snorting sound. While reverse sneezing is completely harmless, collapsing trachea is not.
Below is a dog experiencing a cough due to tracheal collapse:
Why Is Collapsing Trachea Dangerous?
If a dog with tracheal collapse coughs long or hard enough, the trachea can become so inflamed that it begins to swell. When this happens, the trachea becomes even more narrowed, causing the dog to go into respiratory distress. This is a life-threatening emergency that needs to be treated immediately. If the dog can’t breathe, his oxygen intake becomes so low that it can cause him to suffocate.
Collapsing trachea is particularly dangerous for dogs who are already suffering from heart disease or heart failure. But what’s alarming is that some studies have shown that the constant struggle to breathe from collapsing trachea can actually cause secondary heart disease.
Diagnosing Tracheal Collapse
If you suspect your dog is experiencing collapsing trachea, make an appointment with your veterinarian. There are several tests that can confirm if the problem is indeed tracheal collapse.
- X-rays can help determine if the condition is originating in your dog’s chest, in his neck, or both.
- Fluoroscopy, which is a type of “moving x-ray”, checks the size and condition of the dog’s trachea while he is actually breathing in and out. This is extremely helpful in diagnosing dogs who are displaying classic symptoms of collapsing trachea, but don’t show obvious evidence on x-rays.
- Bronchoscopy involves inserting an endoscope with a tiny camera on the end directly into the trachea while the dog is under anesthesia. This allows the veterinarian to actually see inside the trachea and determine how severe the tracheal collapse is, as well as if there are any other abnormalities inside the airways. During a bronchoscopy, the veterinarian can also take samples of fluid and cells from inside the trachea for additional testing.
Since there are so many other conditions that can cause symptoms similar to collapsing trachea (like heart disease, lung disease, viral infections, tumors, or objects stuck in the airway), it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis so the right treatment can be provided.
Managing Collapsing Trachea
Collapsing trachea is an incurable, progressive condition that will only worsen with time. However, if your dog is suffering with this disease, there are things that can be done to manage it so that he or she can experience a much better quality of life.
Medical management usually works for about 70 percent of dogs with collapsing trachea. It typically consists of:
- Keeping your dog at a healthy weight. Dogs who are overweight are more likely to experience breathing problems.
- Limiting exposure to irritants like dust, allergens, and second-hand smoke. Using HEPA air filters in your home, vacuuming regularly, and eliminating exposure to cigarette smoke (this includes vapor e-cigarettes as well) will help your dog breathe more easily.
- Using cough suppressants and/or bronchodilators to help quiet the cough and reduce inflammation. Breaking the cough cycle is key, since coughing further irritates the airway, leading to more coughing.
- Treating all other underlying health conditions, including heart disease and Cushing’s disease.
- Avoiding over-excitement and limiting exercise intensity, especially during hot and humid weather.
- Preventing exposure to viral upper respiratory infections such as kennel cough, which can be common in boarding kennels.
- Always walking your dog with a harness, NEVER with a neck collar. Reducing all pressure on the throat is key to avoiding triggering a cough.
- Adding cartilage-builders such as glucosamine, chondroitin, or cetyl myristoleate (CMO) to your dog’s diet.
Although some veterinarians prescribe steroids such as prednisone for collapsing trachea, this is controversial. Steroids can reduce inflammation in the trachea, but they do nothing to prevent the collapse itself, and can come with a laundry list of side effects.
Many dog parents have experienced positive results treating their dogs with less traditional, holistic therapies. Amanda Genovese of Dog Mom Days outlines several treatments that have worked well for her Chihuahua with tracheal collapse in this article.
For dogs with severe cases of collapsing trachea who don’t respond well to medical management, sometimes surgery is recommended. There are 2 types of surgeries used to treat tracheal collapse.
The first procedure involves surgically placing small plastic rings around the trachea. The second uses stents, which are tiny devices shaped like springs, that hold the trachea open. The important thing to know about these surgeries is that they are not foolproof and can have significant complications. Both surgeries must be performed by a specialist and require general anesthesia, which can pose a risk to older dogs or those who already have other health issues. And although these surgeries can help lessen the symptoms of tracheal collapse, they are not a cure; the dog will still need aggressive medical treatment for the rest of his life to manage the condition.
These are not simple surgeries, so if you are considering surgical treatment for a dog with collapsing trachea, talk it over in depth with your veterinarian so that you are aware of all the risks involved with these procedures.
Living With Tracheal Collapse
Here’s the good news. Although collapsing trachea is a chronic, progressive, incurable disease that requires medical management for a dog’s entire lifetime, if managed correctly, it very rarely causes premature death.
The key to successful management of collapsing trachea is controlling the coughing, and being alert for any signs of respiratory distress. Any dog who is struggling to breathe while having discharge from his nostrils and/or a blue or purple tongue should be seen by a veterinarian right away.
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Have you ever treated a dog with collapsing trachea? If so, what worked for your dog and what didn’t? Please share your story with us in the comments below!