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respiratory distress: dr. rebecca jackson explains aspiration pneumonia



What exactly is aspiration pneumonia?  

To put it simply, aspiration pneumonia is the inhalation (breathing in) of foreign material into the trachea and lungs. It usually occurs secondary to other conditions such as esophageal, pharyngeal or laryngeal abnormalities, vomiting, regurgitation or surgical complications. This condition is more likely to affect dogs than cats. As you can imagine, this can be a life-threatening emergency situation, but it can also be a progressive condition that develops over a period of time. So, what exactly does it look like?

Dogs that are affected with aspiration pneumonia will usually exhibit one or more of the following clinical signs:

  • Coughing/gagging
  • Short, rapid breathing and/or wheezing
  • Fever
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Cyanosis (blue coloring of the mucous membranes)
  • Nasal discharge
  • Elevated heart rate
  • General feeling of malaise/not acting right
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting/regurgitation

As you can imagine, these clinical signs can be very frightening for pet parents to observe. If your pet is exhibiting any combination of these signs, you should seek immediate veterinary attention. This is definitely a condition that has a better prognosis (chance of survival) if caught and treated earlier rather than later.  

How will your veterinarian diagnose aspiration pneumonia? As always, your vet will start with a thorough physical exam. When listening to the lungs with a stethoscope, your veterinarian may hear crackles, wheezing or silence over the affected areas of the lungs. Bloodwork and chest radiographs are very important in determining the presence and severity of aspiration pneumonia. These tests, along with clinical signs and your pet’s recent history, can aide in the diagnosis of aspiration pneumonia.  Please understand that in the acute instance, radiographic abnormalities may not be immediately visible. Your veterinarian may need to repeat the radiographs in 48-72 hours in order to more fully appreciate the severity of the situation.

If your pet is critical (unresponsive, cyanotic, extremely febrile, etc.), other testing may be necessary, such as checking blood gases (this is a blood test that looks at how well your pet is oxygenating its blood and clearing out carbon dioxide – two very important tasks entrusted to the lungs). Your veterinarian may tap the chest (stick a needle into the chest cavity) to remove fluid and submit it for cytology and culture and sensitivity. This allows your veterinarian to better determine what medications your pet will need, from antibiotics to anti-inflammatories.

Once a diagnosis (or suspected diagnosis) of aspiration pneumonia has been made, your pet will need to be hospitalized for any combination of the following therapies:

  • IV (intravascular) fluid therapy
  • IV and/or oral antibiotics
  • Anti-inflammatory/fever reducing medications
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Bronchodilators
  • Treatment to correct the underlying cause of the aspiration pneumonia

Once your pet is stable, your veterinarian will likely discuss with you the suspected underlying cause of the aspiration pneumonia. Your pet may need further testing in order to determine the cause, further therapy and/or surgery to correct the underlying problem, or at home maintenance to help prevent this from occurring again. Sometimes aspiration pneumonia occurs as a complication to anesthetic procedures. If this is the case, your veterinarian may recommend specific precautions before any future anesthetic procedures are performed.  

Aspiration pneumonia can be a life-threatening condition, and it may be difficult for your pet to fully recover from the episode. If in doubt, seek veterinary attention as soon as you reasonably can to ensure your pet has the greatest chance of overcoming this difficult obstacle.

To more waggin’ and purrin’.  rwkj

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Pippa ElliottGuest Blogger of Petplan
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Visit your vet at least once a year to keep your pet protected from preventable diseases.