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Ask the Vet: Can Dogs Die From a Collapsed Trachea?

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Can Dogs Die From a Collapsed Trachea?

Whether dogs die from a collapsed trachea or not depends on a variety of factors such as how advanced the condition is and whether treatment is sought. Regardless, a collapsed trachea remains a serious condition that warrants close monitoring and veterinary attention. If your dog has a collapsed trachea, it helps to better understand the role of the trachea and what implications a collapsed trachea may have on a dog's overall health and well being. Following is information about a collapsed trachea in dogs and its treatment from veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec.

 Collapsed trachea is common in Chihuahuas

Collapsed trachea is common in Chihuahuas

What is Collapsed Trachea in Dogs?

Air that is inhaled passes through the respiratory tract, a series of branching, semi-flexible tubes, until it reaches the alveoli, where the actual gas exchange occurs.

In a nutshell, the respiratory tract is divided into two parts. The upper respiratory tract consists of the nasal passages, throat, larynx (voice box) and the main airway called trachea or windpipe. The trachea is a long tube supported by horseshoe-shaped rings of cartilage.

The lower tract consists of the bronchi (the two airways that branch from the trachea) and the lungs, which are soft, spongy, elastic organs, each encased in a membrane called the pleura. Within the lungs, each bronchus divides many times into smaller bronchioles, which end in tiny air sacs called alveoli.

In the alveoli, the air in the lungs meets the blood capillaries and exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs. Each alveolus is surrounded by many capillaries and by a very thin membrane so gas exchange can take place effectively.

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As frightening as it may sound, the term collapsed trachea indicates a fairly common condition that leads to chronic coughing. Tracheal collapse occurs when the cartilage rings that support the trachea and give its shape become weak or more accurately soft and spongy.

More often than not, tracheal collapse is the result of an anatomical defect that occurs in toy breeds, particularly the Yorkshire Terrier but also the Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Italian Greyhound and Toy Poodle. In these breeds, the normally rigid structure of the trachea becomes weakened and prone to collapse under pressure.

Since the cartilage tends to naturally become weaker as the dog ages, it is only safe to assume that the condition is more common among older dogs.

Can Dogs Die From a Collapsed Trachea?

First of all, it should be stated that a collapsed trachea cannot be cured. Instead it can only be successfully managed to a point where it no longer causes further complications and disturbances. It goes without saying that regardless of the management plan, dogs diagnosed with collapsed trachea require constant monitoring.

Generally speaking, there are two types of tracheal collapse: moderate collapse and severe collapse. Can dogs die from a collapsed trachea? Depending on the severity of the collapse, the condition can be life-threatening.

A dog with a collapsed trachea coughs like a honking goose. In most cases the coughing is triggered by either physical activity or excitement. Other common triggers include: obesity, endotracheal tube placement during anesthesia, presence of respiratory infections (chronic bronchitis or kennel cough), increased concentration of respiratory irritants in the air like dust and cigarette smoke, and heart enlargement (that additionally pressures the trachea).

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It should be noted that in most cases, unless some of the above mentioned triggers occurs, dogs with collapsed tracheas can be asymptomatic. The symptoms (honking cough) develop once a trigger initiates the process. The coughs can be solitary or occurring in clusters. If your dog show signs of tracheal collapse please see your veterinarian.

At the Vet's Office

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As with any other condition, the diagnostic procedure begins with a general examination of the dog. It is the vet’s prime duty to rule out other possible causes of the coughing. A collapsing trachea is definitively confirmed by X-rays.

A dog with collapsed trachea may show similar signs like a dog with canine infectious respiratory disease or more popularly known as kennel cough. In fact, a collapsed trachea, in its initial stages is often mistaken for kennel cough. With that being said, it should be noted that the two conditions are not mutually exclusive.

However, kennel cough is a self limiting condition that usually resolves within a week. On the other hand, collapsed trachea is a lifelong diagnosis with progressive nature.

The exact management plan varies depending on the severity of the condition. Weight loss is important if excess weight has contributed to the problem. Training to reduce excited behavior, or mild sedation, may be recommended to prevent the condition from worsening.

Some drugs may be given to suppress the annoying and debilitating coughing, to reduce the secretion in the airway and to prevent infections. The most commonly used drugs include:

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  • Cough suppressants such as butorphanol and hydrocodone can be used to reduce the intensity and frequency of coughing. They actually play dual role – first they suppress the coughing itself and then they reduce the irritation that eventually leads to more coughing.
  • Bronchodilators like albuterol, terbutaline and theophylline promote widening of the small airways in the lungs thus decreasing the pressure put on the trachea.
  • Anti-inflammatories – corticosteroids like prednisone and fluticasone can be used to reduce the tracheal inflammation and swelling. They can be used either orally or by inhalation (in which case they have fewer side-effects).
  • Sedatives like acepromazine and butorphanol can be used to control anxiety and excitement which tend to worsen the condition.
  • Antibiotics are often advised because respiratory infections are particularly common among dogs with collapsed trachea.
  • Anabolic steroids – recent studies suggest that a derivative of the male hormone testosterone called stanozolol can be useful for dogs with collapsed trachea because it has anti-inflammatory properties and it also helps strengthen the tracheal cartilage.

In addition, eliminating any pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, from the dog’s environment may be helpful.

In some cases, surgery to insert tubular support (rings on the outside or stent inside the trachea) for the collapsed trachea is performed. The surgical approach should be considered when the medical and environmental management are not enough to control the symptoms. Unfortunately, this approach is useful only if the affected portion of the trachea is situated in the neck. If the affected portion is in the chest cavity, the procedure cannot be done. Additionally, post-surgical complications are quite common.

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.

ivana crnec

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