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What Your Panting Dog May Be Trying to Tell You

We tend to associate dog panting with a way to cool down, but dogs may pant for several other reasons. To observant owners the way a dog pants can provide relevant information even about a dog's emotional state. A good place to start is by looking at the dog's commissures, which are the corners of the dog's mouth. Are they tense? Relaxed? As with many things dog though, you can't generate a sure conclusion by just focusing on a body part. By paying attention to the context in which panting occurs, the way the dog pants and the accompanying body language, we may be able to gain a better insight on what our dogs may be feeling. So let's try listening to our panting dogs and see what they may be trying to say.

I am Hot!

dog hot

A dog's body warms up in two ways; from external conditions and internal conditions. External is when the dog is exposed to a hot environment. Being covered with fur and with a body temperature higher than us, we must consider that dogs are more sensitive to heat than we are, especially when it comes to the Nordic breeds.

This type of panting therefore tends to occur in a warm context such as walking on a warm day or being in a room with not much ventilation. Dogs who are panting from heat will often be seeking other methods to cool down quickly such as seeking shade, laying down on a tiled floor or sticking their head out of a window.

In a dog panting from being warm, the panting happens at a very rapid rate. Generally, the ears and face are relaxed, the eyes are soft and the lips are slightly retracted with a downward relaxed droop. The nostrils may quiver a bit as the dog exhales. The tongue will often flop out loosely due to gravity and it may be kept sometimes to the side, out of the way.

Since the moisture on the dog's tongue evaporates, it helps the dog cool down. For more on this cool stuff read: how do dogs cool down?

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"In a dog that is just hot and panting, the tongue will loll out of the mouth, sometimes off to the side, and will be shaped more by gravity than by muscular effort." Brenda Aloff, Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide


I Have Exercised!

As mentioned above, dogs may sometimes get warm internally like for example when they are exercised. Basically, what happens is that a dog's muscles contract and they generate heat.

Like when it's hot, dogs who are exercised will pant to cool their body down. This panting as the heat-related panting, will occur in specific contexts, such as during and/or after playing a game of fetch, playing with other dogs or going on brisk walk.

When dogs are tired and done exercising, they will pant and often look for a place to lie down and start cooling down. Often dogs panting from exercise have a happy look on their faces, perhaps due to the satisfaction derived from engaging in enjoyable activities such as play.

Like dogs panting from exposure to heat, dogs who are panting from exercise will also not appear tense. The tongue will be protruding out and can be carried to the side, out of the way. The tongue lolls out loosely due to gravity. The lips will be retracted with a downward relaxed droop. The nostrils may quiver slightly as the dog exhales.


A storm is rolling through, I am so scared!

I am Stressed/Scared/ Anxious

Stress, anxiety, fear may also cause a dog to pant as adrenaline speeds up a dog's heart and respiratory rate, which results in panting. Dogs may therefore pant in contexts that generate fear, such as at the vet, when the owner is about to leave (in dogs suffering from separation anxiety) and when a storm rolls in (in dogs suffering from brontophobia).

The owners must therefore evaluate whether the dog is hot, has exercised or if stress may play a role. This means if your dog is panting in the car, you might therefore want to evaluate if it's because the car is hot, or if it's a result of the stress from the experience of being on a car ride, suggest Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt in the book "Stress in dogs. Learn How Dogs Show Stress and What You Can Do to Help." 

In the case of a dog who is panting from anxiety or fear, the lip retraction tends to be more marked. There may be little to no downward droop therefore almost all of the dog's teeth become visible. The tongue generally doesn't protrude out loosely due to gravity, instead it may show what Brenda Aloff refers to as "the spatulate tongue."

Let's remember that a dog's tongue is is a muscular organand as such it can also become tense. So basically,when the dog is tense, the tongue no longer falls out loosely due to gravity, but instead is held up from muscular effort. It therefore takes a curved shape at the edges that resembles a spatula. However, don't take a spatulate tongue as a sure sign of stress! It's important to look at the dog as a whole, and once again, the context in which it happens. In a stressed dog you will also likely see facial tension, ears set back, dilated pupils and more. The dog on the left, is scared of thunder and was in a hiding spot. Notice the whale eye and panting.

Did you know? The median sulcus is the groove that divides the dog's upper surface of the tongue into two symmetrical halves.

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I am Excited

dog excited

Some dogs get so worked-up when they engage in activities they look forward to, that this may lead to panting. Since dogs who are excited also move so much, the panting can also be attributed to the dog's muscle actions and movements.

Dogs may get excited and pant when they hear the noise of the leash, when they hop into the car and can't wait to go to park, when they know they are going hunting or when they start hearing the car denoting the owner is coming home during a dull, lonely day.

In this case, the panting is happening in context when there are exciting happenings going on. The dog's body is quivering in anticipation, the dog is alert, and there may be excited vocalizations going on like high-pitched barks or whines.

The eyes are focused on what is triggering the excitement. The ears are up and alert ready to capture any noises. They may be pacing back and forth, jumping and of course, the panting from all the commotion.

sick dog

I am Sick

Panting may be a sign that your dog is not feeling well and can be seen out of context, therefore, when one would not expect the dog to pant.

A dog in pain may be sitting next the owner and panting as if asking for help. He or she may be pacing and have a hard time finding a comfortable position if there's an orthopedic, abdominal or spinal problem.

In a dog with trouble breathing, the dog breaths with an open mouth and the neck may be extended. A dog in respiratory distress may prefer to stand or sit rather than lie down and may keep the legs in a wide stance. Difficulty breathing may stem from a heart or lung problem and requires immediate veterinary attention.

Other conditions that may cause panting are a fever, abdominal pain, anemia, endocrine and several neurological conditions.

Senior dogs may start panting at night and it can be a sign of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. Also, some medications may cause episodes of panting, a typical example are steroids such as prednisone. If your dog is panting and looks sick, please consult with your veterinarian at once.

"Most dogs and cats with difficulty breathing will show the most effort when they are breathing air in, while others may also have difficulty breathing out. Some animals will take rapid, deep breaths, and in dogs this must be differentiated from normal panting—which is rapid, shallow breaths."Cummings Veterinary Medical Center

Did you know? Even when your dog stops panting, you may learn something about him. For instance, if your dog is panting and then suddenly stops, this may indicate that he has seen something that grabbed his interest or he heard a particular sound. Other than increased concentration, it can also signal growing concern. The mouth closing may be followed by a snarl or growl if the undesired interaction is allowed to continue.

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  • The Dog Behavior Problem Solver: Step-by-Step Positive Training Techniques to Correct More than 20 Problem Behaviors by Teoti Anderson, Lumina Media (December 8, 2015)
  • Stress in DogsPerfect by Martina Scholz, Clarissa von Reinhardt, Dogwise Publishing; 1st edition (December 1, 2006)
  • Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog by Brenda Aloff, Dogwise Publishing; 1St Edition edition (November 1, 2005)
  • Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, Tufts University, Difficulty Breathing – Symptoms of Pets with Heart Disease, retrieved from the web on July 21st, 2016
  • Clinician's Brief, What's in a Pant, retrieved from the web on July 21st, 2016
  • Photo Credits:
  • Flickr Creative Commns, Micolo J, Enjoying the Sun Banjo, My rescue dog and best friend having a breather in the hot weather, CCBY2.0
  • Flickr Creative Commons, Steven Saus, Scared by overnight storms, she got stuck in the railing. CCBY2.0
  • Flickr Creative Commons, Dale, PJ's a sick girl, She's suffering from Irritable bowel syndrome. We have an appointment with a new vet, hoping he can do something to help her out. CCBY2.0

  • Flickr Creative Commons Bev SykesWow! Really?I don't know what Sheila was so excited about, but I love the expression on her face--even if the photo is blurry!, CCBY2.0

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