distressing signals

Does your dog ever sound like she’s turning into a goose? An intermittent honking cough may mean that she has a condition common among small and toy breed dogs: tracheal collapse. The trachea, or windpipe, is normally a rigid tube, carrying air from the upper respiratory system into the lungs. It is made up of C-shaped rings of cartilage connected by muscle and covered by a thin membrane. As pets age, these rings can weaken, causing the trachea to flatten. When this happens, the membrane droops into the windpipe, causing a tickling sensation that induces a cough.

The defect that causes the cartilage rings to weaken is hereditary in many small and toy breed dogs, so those breeds are most often affected. Although mostly seen in middle-aged or older dogs, it can occur in dogs of any age. Tracheal collapse is rare in cats, but occasionally occurs secondary to trauma or other respiratory tract conditions.

close to collapse
Clinical signs of a collapsing trachea range from mild, intermittent barking coughs to serious respiratory distress. In more severe cases, coughing leads to tracheal inflammation and swelling, which can result in a compromised airway. Symptoms can be triggered by anxiety, eating or pulling on the leash during walks. Some dogs may have a collapsing trachea but not show signs until there is a secondary problem. Factors that can worsen the effects of tracheal collapse include:

Respiratory infection, such as kennel cough or pneumonia
Exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke or dust
Heart enlargement

chest this out
Your pet’s veterinarian will do a physical exam to check for tracheal collapse, and may order chest X-rays to help determine if the condition is intrathoracic (inside your pet’s chest), extrathoracic (located in his neck) or both. Occasionally, bronchoscopy, or endoscopy of the airway, is recommended to assess the severity of disease.

seeking open air
For many pets, resolving secondary problems will also resolve the clinical signs of tracheal collapse. For overweight pets, shedding extra pounds can help, and some pet parents use an air filter to help their pets breathe easier. About 70% of affected dogs respond to medical management of tracheal collapse, including oral
cough suppressants and bronchodilators to quiet the cough. Severe cases may require surgical placement of a stent in the trachea to keep the airway open. Tracheal collapse can be very dangerous, so if your pet ever appears to be experiencing respiratory distress, head to your veterinarian’s office or the closest emergency center right away.