Every living creature needs to breathe to survive. Breathing allows animals to deliver oxygen to tissues, as well as to get rid of wastes such as carbon dioxide that are produced by the body’s metabolism. The air is taken in from the outside from the mouth and nose, and goes through a tube that ends at the lungs. This air pipe or ‘windpipe’ is called the trachea. Upon exhalation, the carbon dioxide travels in the opposite direction to the outside through the trachea. However, as with any physiological system, there are sometimes problems that can occur that prevent the trachea from performing its breathing function optimally.
Collapsing trachea is the name of one of these conditions, in which the tube carrying air to the lungs from outside ‘caves’ in on itself. Picture this as a garden hose scenario; you make a restriction in the hose and the water stops coming out of the end, unable to make it past this blocked part. The water still flows through the hose up to this point, but when it reaches the ‘collapsed’ region, only a trickle may leak through. The majority of the water will keep building up in greater quantities causing increasing pressure. Eventually the pressure will be so great that it will cause the pipe to burst in another area or your hand will fly open and the water will come gushing out. The trachea is very similar to the garden hose in this scenario. When the trachea is occluded (obstructed), the little air that may leak through results in the dog making a honking sound. This noise is quite characteristic of this condition. Now before we get ahead of ourselves, what exactly causes the trachea to collapse?
The trachea is a windpipe that connects the nose, mouth, and throat to the lungs. It is composed of incomplete rings of cartilage (like a “C” shape) that are connected by muscles that complete the tube. Under normal circumstances, these tracheal rings retain their stiffness, preventing collapse of the trachea so that the air has a large area to travel through to the respiratory tract. Dogs with collapsing trachea have some kind of defect, possibly genetic, giving them weak tracheal rings that are unable to hold the trachea open during the forceful breathing of exercise or excitement. This occlusion may occur either during inhalation or exhalation in a dog. As one can imagine, not being able to breathe may lead to panic, which will increase the breathing rate because of further anxiety and distress. This makes the situation worse, compounding it in a vicious cycle. True, difficulties breathing are always an emergency, and you can check to make sure your pet is still getting enough oxygen. To do this, take a look at the gums. If they are blue this is a dire circumstance and you should rush to the emergency clinic as soon as possible. It means that the dog is oxygen-deprived, and there are many options your veterinarian can recommend that may help your pet to breathe with ease once more.
Of course, nobody likes to see his or her pet having difficulty breathing, so what can you do to prevent this from occurring? Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, collapsing trachea is a hereditary condition. There is no foolproof way to stop it from occurring, as many dogs that have collapsing trachea will not show any signs until another secondary problem triggers this condition. It is these secondary problems that we want to eliminate to diminish the likelihood of this disease. Obesity and irritants in the air (e.g. cigarette smoke, dust) are two preventable problems that make your pet more prone to collapsed trachea. Other triggers are respiratory infection, anesthesia, and heart enlargement (if it gets big enough to press against the trachea). Although not all the triggers are preventable, reducing as many as possible will have a positive effect, not just for this particular condition but on overall health as well.
There are so many diseases, so how do you narrow it down to looking specifically for collapsing trachea in your pooch? Collapsing trachea occurs most predominantly in toy breed dogs: Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Lhasa Apsos, Toy Poodles and Yorkshire Terriers. This does not mean that you should be scared of owning one of these lovely lap dogs, but being aware of potential problems that may develop will allow you to recognize early signs and act quickly to minimize your dog’s discomfort.
Does all this information about tracheal collapse make it seem like Fido will never have fun again? Here are some encouraging statistics: in a recent study, 71% of dogs that had collapsing trachea showed improvement when treated with the management of secondary factors and medications. Barring additional diseases causing complications, surgery is another option that may be able to reduce, if not fix, collapsing trachea and 17% of dogs with collapsing trachea undergo the surgery. Another study of dogs that received this surgery showed that 96% showed improvement afterwards, however there is always a risk when it comes to surgery that must also be taken into consideration. Surgery on the trachea… how do you do that? Well, a rigid prosthetic part is implanted in the trachea that basically prevents it from collapsing. In addition, this specific surgery is not yet being widely used so it could be difficult to find a veterinarian experienced in this procedure. In conclusion, collapsing trachea can be a life-threatening condition, but can usually be managed with reasonable expectations of returning your pet to having an easy, breezy life.
By Laura Platt – Pets.ca writer