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Dog Collapsed Trachea: Symptoms, Treatment, Prognosis

What Is Tracheal Collapse?

Has your dog been diagnosed with a collapsed trachea? There is hope and there is help. Regardless of why your dog has developed tracheal collapse, there are simple steps you can take to reduce symptoms and keep your dog happy and healthy. But first, it’s important to understand what tracheal collapse is and what the trachea is. The trachea is the windpipe or airway that extends from your dog’s mouth down to the lungs. This flexible tube is held open with a series of rings. These rings are made of cartilage, and they may weaken or collapse due to age or genetic predisposition. When the rings collapse, they can make it harder for your dog to breathe, which can lead to coughing and wheezing.

Collapsed trachea in itself is not a painful condition, but it can cause uncontrollable coughing. In advanced cases, the narrowing of the trachea may make it hard for a dog to breathe. The constant inflammation and irritation can create additional pressure on the heart and lungs. Dogs with collapsed trachea may develop compromised lung capacity and an enlarged heart, especially if steps aren’t taken to reduce the inflammation. Most dogs with collapsed trachea will die from a secondary condition and not solely from tracheal collapse. Collapsed trachea can sometimes have the same symptoms of a condition known as "laryngeal paralysis" though those conditions are different in both diagnosis and treatment. Learn about laryngeal paralysis here.

Collapsed trachea is a progressive disease, and lifestyle changes can help to make your dog more comfortable. Allergies and digestive problems can make the coughing and inflammation worse. By making simple diet changes and enhancing the natural digestive process with supplements, you can help to ease the uncomfortable symptoms and control the triggers.

Signs & Symptoms of Collapsed Trachea in Dogs

Collapsed trachea in dogs can cause coughing, gagging and respiratory problems. The first sign typically is a dry cough, like a goose honking, that progresses to difficulty breathing. Some dogs will begin to cough after eating or drinking water. Excitement and exercise can trigger respiratory symptoms. The most common symptoms of collapsed trachea are:

  • Coughing (goose honking)
  • Gagging
  • Wheezing and noisy respiration
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Acid reflux and/or digestive upset
  • Retching
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Fainting spells
  • Blue-tinged gums

Collapsed trachea is a progressive condition that affects certain small dog breeds. Collapsed trachea in dogs can cause coughing, gagging and respiratory problems. The first clinical sign typically is a dry cough or honking cough that progresses to difficulty breathing and exercise intolerance. Some pet owners may simply notice that their dog starts coughing after drinking water or getting excited. Symptoms seem to get worse with exercise, excitement, eating, drinking, with pressure applied to the trachea (i.e. collar or tugging on leash), or at night time. Symptoms of collapsing trachea can be aggravated by stress, obesity, inflammation, indigestion (stomach acid) and allergies, so it is important to do everything you can to keep your dog's digestion and inflammation under control. While there isn't a natural cure for collapsing trachea, natural remedies for collapsed trachea in dogs can help control the symptoms and help pets feel more comfortable.

In the image below, you can see that the trachea (air tube) and esophagus (food tube) are beside each other. A normal trachea has rings of cartilage that help keep it open. As the rings become weaker and start to collapse, the air tube becomes flatter. Inflammation in the esophagus can push on the trachea, also adding pressure to the cartilage rings. Natural supplements can help to strengthen the tracheal rings and diet changes can help reduce inflammation.

image for what causes collapsed trachea in dogs

How Is a Collapsed Trachea Diagnosed in Dogs?

Clinical signs will often be enough for a veterinarian to suspect a collapsed trachea, especially in small-breed dogs. It is very important to have a veterinarian perform a full physical exam and run laboratory tests to rule out other conditions. Chest x-rays are typically used for diagnosis, but tracheal collapse is not always visible on regular x-rays.
Some vets will perform a fluoroscopy (video x-ray taken while the dog is breathing). Others will do a bronchoscopy (inserting a flexible tube with a light and camera down the trachea). Both provide detailed imaging of the cartilage rings and can show the severity of the collapse. An ECG, or echocardiogram, can be used to determine if heart function has been affected by the tracheal collapse.

There are four grades of collapsed trachea.

With Grade 1 collapse, the cartilage rings still function but the tracheal lumen (the cells that support the trachea) have been reduced by about 25%.

Grade 2 collapse indicates the lumen have decreased by 50% and Grade 3 indicates a 75% reduction in the lumen.

With Grade 4, the cartilage has completely collapsed.

What Makes Your Dog Likely To Develop Tracheal Collapse?

Genetics is the most common reason for weak tracheal cartilage. Allergies, digestion and environmental factors can contribute to the progression of collapsed trachea. But anatomy does not have to equal destiny. Just because your dog was born with a weak trachea doesn’t mean that it can’t live a full, happy life. Many small-breed dogs with congenital collapsed trachea have found relief from the constant coughing and gagging by strengthening the tracheal cartilage. By starting early, you can help to slow the progression of the condition.

Toy and small–breed dogs are more likely to have collapsed trachea, but it can occur in medium- to large-sized dogs as well. Breeds most susceptible to the condition include:

  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Chihuahuas
  • Pomeranians
  • Miniature & toy poodles
  • Pugs
  • Lhasa apsos
  • Shih tzus
  • Maltese

While dogs with severe congenital tracheal weakness may be diagnosed as puppies, most dogs are diagnosed when they are over the age of 6. As pets age, the cartilage can become weaker. This, along with other secondary health conditions, contributes to more dogs being diagnosed later in life.

Along with congenital and breed factors, there are controllable factors that can make your dog more likely to suffer from collapsed trachea symptoms.

  • Weight management - When a dog is overweight, it takes more energy and deeper breathing to complete easy tasks. An obese dog with collapsed trachea may have difficulty exercising without triggering a coughing attack.
  • Anxiety, overheating and excitement - These can cause coughing, rapid breathing or fainting.
  • Airborne irritants - Airborne irritants can irritate your pet’s windpipe and trigger coughing attacks. These may include cigarette smoke, dust, candles, cleaning solutions and strong fragrances.
  • Indigestion and acid reflux - Digestive issues are a common factor associated with tracheal collapse. Pets can have subtle signs, such as gulping at night, swallowing sounds, grass eating or lack of appetite in the morning. Acid buildup and indigestion irritate the esophagus, worsening inflammation and collapsed trachea symptoms.

Treatment of Tracheal Collapse in Dogs

Collapsed trachea is a progressive condition in dogs that can get worse over time. However, using a holistic approach along with conventional veterinary treatment can help slow the progression. Simple lifestyle changes, diet management and supplements can help reduce symptoms.

Veterinarians treat collapsed trachea with medications, surgery or a combination of both. The most common surgical repairs are placing C-shaped rings on the outside of the tracheal tube for support or inserting a woven mesh tube. With surgery, there is the risk of complications. Sensitivity to anesthesia is an important consideration, especially for senior dogs and dogs with heart conditions.

Medical treatment for collapsed trachea may include a wide range of prescriptions, which can include:

  • Antibiotics, if any infection is present
  • Bronchodilators (such as theophylline, terbutaline, or albuterol) to help open the airways
  • Cough suppressants (such as butorphanol or hydrocodone) to prevent coughing and relieve irritation in the airways
  • Sedatives (such as acepromazine or diazepam) to help calm anxious or excitable dogs to prevent flare-ups
  • Steroids (such as prednisone or fluticasone) to reduce inflammation in the trachea

The cost to treat collapsed trachea will vary greatly depending on the treatment plan suggested by the veterinarian or surgeon. Reconstructive surgery can cost between $4,500 and $5,500. The cost includes the specialty surgeon and the stent materials required for the procedure. Medication management can run from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars a month just for prescription refills. Pet insurance may help to cover some of the cost. Lifestyle changes are free and can make a huge difference in the dog’s quality of life.

Learn more about how our supplements can help with your dog’s collapsed trachea

Dog Tracheal Collapse Prognosis

Medical, holistic treatments (lifestyle, diet and supplements) and/or surgical intervention can greatly improve tracheal collapse symptoms. While the tracheal collapse cannot be cured, these treatments can reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms. By implementing lifestyle changes and adding natural supplements, one can enhance the treatment plan set forth by the veterinarian. A combination of traditional veterinary care along with holistic treatments can yield promising results for a dog with collapsed trachea.

The term collapsed trachea sounds terminal, like the trachea is closed and no longer functions. But dogs with the condition can live to their full life expectancy. Advancements in surgery, medications and complementary holistic treatments can help minimize the uncomfortable symptoms and delay the progression of the disease. Dogs with collapsed trachea that receive no treatments can expect to live about two years. Some veterinarians may recommend euthanasia in dogs with severe Grade 4 cases of collapsed trachea. It should be considered when restricted breathing and reduced lung capacity have diminished the pet’s quality of life.

What Can You Do To Help Your Dog?

Natural supplements for collapsed trachea are widely used in conjunction with medical and surgical treatments. Collagen supplements can strengthen the cartilage rings within the trachea, helping to maintain proper airflow and respiration. Digestive supplements can help to reduce signs of poor digestion. Acid stomach, gulping, burping, vomiting bile and loose stool are common in dogs with collapsed trachea. Calming drops can help reduce inflammation and anxiety. Omega-3s and CoQ10 can support respiration and heart health.

Diet changes can have a huge impact on a dog’s overall well-being. Many dog foods contain ingredients that can cause allergies and promote inflammation. A hypoallergenic, novel-protein diet can help reduce coughing and indigestion.

Simple lifestyle changes can help manage triggers and reduce the severity and frequency of flare-ups.

  • Use a harness instead of a collar. Dogs with collapsed trachea are very sensitive to any pressure around their neck. Dogs fitted with a harness can still walk well on a leash and be fitted with the proper ID tags. By keeping pressure off the neck and trachea, it can help to prevent coughing attacks.
  • Stay cool. Hot and humid days can cause dogs to overheat easily. Cooling pads can provide fast relief for dogs when they become overheated.
  • Stay active. Dogs with collapsed trachea still need to exercise to stay healthy. They do best when they avoid high-impact and high-intensity activities. A long, slow walk is perfect for dogs with collapsed trachea.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. For overweight dogs, many vets will suggest exercise and diet changes as the first treatment for collapsed trachea.

Want To Learn More About How To Help Your Dog With Collapsed Trachea?

Many small breed dogs develop collapsed trachea as they get older. As dogs age, they lose elasticity and stability in the joints, muscles and connective tissue. Breeds most commonly affected are:

  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Chihuahuas
  • Pomeranians
  • Miniature & toy poodles
  • Pugs
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Shih Tzus
  • Maltese
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