Recently, a pet parent had a question about a senior Labrador retriever who developed frequent, heavy panting. The dog is at a healthy weight, and he lives in an air-conditioned house (i.e., the panting isn’t related to obesity or heat).
So what could the heavy panting be a sign of?
According to Dr. Emily Adamson, a member of the VCA SFVS 2013-2014 intern class, the description of an older Labrador with heavy breathing and panting is most consistent with a condition called laryngeal paralysis.
The larynx, or voice box, is located in the beginning of the throat. In addition to controlling sound, it protects the airway. It opens to allow air to enter during inhalation, and closes when eating or drinking. With laryngeal paralysis, the muscles of the larynx do not work correctly and obstruct the dog’s ability to take a full breath.
Labradors are the most common breed to be diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis. In addition to frequent panting, affected dogs often experience noisy breathing, have a voice change (different bark), and tire easily with exercise.
The inability to take a good breath may also lead to anxiety and restlessness, and dogs may cough, gag and sometimes vomit. Vomiting is especially dangerous to an unprotected airway.
Diagnosis involves a sedated examination of the airway. On exam, the larynx does not open and close appropriately. Surgery is the treatment of choice and usually involves tying back one side of the larynx to keep the airway open.
Excessive panting can also sometimes be associated with feeling pain or anxiety.
The dog should receive a thorough physical exam by a veterinarian, who can help determine the appropriate diagnostics and treatments.