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Causes of Panting in Old Dogs

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Old Dogs Panting

Panting in old dogs is not uncommon, but warrants investigation by a vet considering that it can be indicative of various health ailments. Dogs normally pant when exercising or when it is hot as a way of cooling down. Panting in dogs to cool down is normal and signals that the dog's thermoregulation system is working as it should. Problems start when the panting in old dogs is excessive and takes place in instances when it is not hot and the dog hasn't exercised. Following are several potential causes for panting in old dogs.

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Causes of panting in old dogs

Panting in Old Dogs 

Panting in old dogs may be caused by a variety of problems. It's important to find out the underlying cause, especially when the panting is excessive and is happening for no apparent reason (it's not hot and the dog hasn't exercised).

Some forms of panting are more worrisome than others and may require an emergency visit to the vet or closest emergency center if it's after hours. Keeping a close eye on the dog's gums and their capillary refill time can help monitor to situation. Only do this if your dog is comfortable with you checking his mouth.

In a dog who is receiving enough oxygen from the blood and thus, has good blood circulation, the gums will typically be a nice pink color. If the gums appear white, gray or very pale, this is indicative of an emergency situation. A vet should also be sought at once if the gums assume a dark red color.

Capillary refill time should be monitored as well. Capillary refill time measure blood perfusion, in other words, the ability of blood being delivered to the capillaries. To measure this, you would press with your thumb on your dog's gum applying pressure and then release. The gums will blanch but should quickly return to their normal pink color. The time to return to pink should be less than 2 seconds. If it takes more, then it's important to see the emergency vet.

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A Sign of Pain 

Panting in an old dog can be indicative of some type of pain going on. With old age, the chances for aches and pains increase dramatically. Pinpointing the source of the pain though is often a challenge and will need investigation by the vet.

Many senior dogs suffer from painful arthritis such as from bad knees and hips. An old dog getting up and panting or panting while walking may be suffering from painful joints. Such dogs may appear stiff when walking or they may be limping when they get up and then improve a bit when walking a few steps. There are several medications that can help reduce this type of pain.

Sometimes, dogs who pant may be suffering from neck or back pain. As dogs age, degeneration of the spine becomes more common. A slipped disc may be very painful. With neck pain, it may be painful for affected dogs to lie down and this may cause the dog to change position frequently and pant.

Abdominal pain can be very painful too. Affected dogs may pant, lick their lips, sigh and there may be stomach noises. Pancreatitis can be very painful for dogs and cause vomiting, nausea and a decrease in appetite. Dogs who are restless, panting, retching but unable to vomit and have a distended abdomen, should see a veterinarian immediately as these signs can be indicative of life-threatening bloat and stomach flipping.

Increased Body Temperature

The presence of an elevated body temperature can cause panting in old dogs and the underlying cause for the fever warrants investigation. The normal body temperature in dogs is between 101 and 102 degrees fahrenheit. Taking a dog's body temperature during a panting episode can help determine whether there is presence of a fever.

Seizures can cause increased panting in dogs considering that seizures elevate a dog's temperature. The onset of seizures in old dogs who haven't suffered from seizures before may unfortunately be indicative of a brain tumor. Brain tumors require an MRI to diagnose.

If your dog is panting excessively without recovering and has been out in hot weather, see your vet as your dog may have heat stroke. Signs of heat stroke in dogs include heavy panting, drooling, weakness, fast heart rate and a body temperature over 104 F.

A Heart Problem

As dogs age, the incidence for the development of heart problems increases. Often one of the first signs of heart problems in dogs that is often missed by inattentive dog owners is an increased respiratory rate at rest.

A normal respiratory rate (taken when not panting considering that when panting, respiration rates in dogs increase to around 300-400 respirations per minute!) is usually under 20 to 30 breaths per minute. Higher respiratory rates can be indicative of the dog needing to get more oxygen.

Congestive heart failure in dogs can cause several clinical signs and the most common are exercise intolerance, coughing and panting. Because the heart is no longer working as it should, fluid builds up in the lungs making it difficult for the dog to breathe.

A vet listening to the heart may provide indication of whether there is a problem with the heart. Further tests include chest x-rays, an electrocardiogram and ultrasound of the heart.

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Respiratory Tract Disorders 

Problems affecting the upper airways may cause panting. These problems may include a dog's blocked nose, or any other issues that may interfere with breathing such as nasal polyps, laryngeal problems (quite common in senior Labs), polyps and collapsed trachea (in some older, small-breed dogs the cartilage of the windpipe can weaken causing it to "collapse" when breathing heavily).

Aging can cause changes to the dog's lungs too. According to veterinarian Dr. Deb, aging changes taking place in the lungs may cause the development of fibrosis to an extent that the affected dogs is unable to oxygenate or exchange oxygen as well.

Changes in the dog's lungs predispose older dogs to bronchitis and pneumonia which may cause panting, exercise intolerance, fever and coughing. Some dogs may have a need to prop themselves up in order to sleep. Unfortunately, in older dogs, the chances for lung cancer increase. Lung cancer in dogs in most cases develops secondary to other forms of cancer.

X-rays of the lungs can help pinpoint problems. In challenging cases, sending x-ray films to be analyzed by a Veterinary radiologist may ensure nothing is being missed. A thoracic ultrasound may be insightful for those cases where any abnormalities are not caught on x-ray.

A Case of Cushing's Disease 

Dogs suffering from Cushing's disease, also known as hyperadrencorticism, have a tendency to pant more, drink more and urinate more frequently. Affected dogs also develop almost ravenous hunger. Other symptoms include presence of a "pot belly," thin skin on the belly, hair loss, and seeking cool areas to lie down (these dogs feel hot). Symptoms develop gradually.

Cushing's disease takes place when the dog's adrenal glands produce excessive cortisol. This excessive amount of cortisol causes problems similar to dogs who are on steroids (see below). Cushings is diagnosed through a dexamethasone suppression test which is not normally part of routine blood work and involves three blood samples taken throughout the day.

Treatment for Cushing's disease in dogs consists of the drugs Trilostane or mitotane. These drugs work by destroying part of the dog's adrenal gland so to lower the production of cortisol. Close monitoring is needed with these drugs as there are risks, hence why frequent blood tests are required.

Side Effects of Medications 

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Many older dogs are on medications and some side effects of these medications include panting. Steroids like prednisone which are often prescribed for skin problems are known for causing excessive drinking, excessive urination, increased hunger and panting. Steroids should never be stopped abruptly. If your dog is on steroids and you notice side effects, consult with your vet for guidelines on what to do.

Opiods can also trigger a bout of panting in dogs. This occurs because opioids affect the thermoregulatory center in the dog's hypothalamus, explains veterinarian Dr. Butch KuKanich.

Many medications can cause panting as a side effect. If your dog is on a new medication and is panting, take a look at the side effects listed to see whether restlessness or panting is one of them.

Anxiety in Old Dogs

As some dogs age, their cognitive function may also decline leading to what's known as Canine Alzheimer's Disease or Sundowner's Syndrome. Affected dogs may start acting confused, they may get restless at night and have a hard time settling down. Some may start soiling in the home, vocalizing and some older dogs stare at walls. 

Panting and whining may take place as a result of their anxiety. Dogs with this problem can be helped with the use of Anipryl, a drug approved for use cognitive dysfunction (CDS) in dogs. However not always owners report success with it. Usually, improvement is noticed within the first month of use.

Some elderly dogs may develop new fears and phobias. Dogs who have never suffered from separation anxiety may start getting very clingy to their owners and may pant, pace, act anxious when one caregiver leaves the house. Other dogs may develop fears of noises or fear of thunderstorms. Usually, the panting episodes are tied to these events, and subside once the anxiety-evoking event has passed.

Other Possible Causes

The list of panting in old dogs can be quite comprehensive. Panting in old dogs is not a specific sign of a particular disorder but rather occurs secondary to a variety of conditions.

Other possible causes that may cause panting include anemia (due to less oxygen carried in the blood), ascites, the abdomen filling up with fluids and causing trouble breathing, conditions that increase blood pressure such as diabetes and kidney issues, old dog vestibular disease may cause panting along with nausea, instability and head tilt, laryngeal paralysis may cause panting along with noisy breathing, coughing and a hoarse bark.

In dogs who are overweight, panting is often seen as they tired more easily. Brachycephalic dogs are more prone to panting due to their conformation. Dogs may also pant when they have consumed a toxic substance or when they are victims of trauma.

Sleep-cycle disturbances can be cause periods of panting as if the dog was anxious or hot along with other behaviors such as asking to be taken out, inability to get comfortable and constantly "fluffing" the bed. These sleep-cycle disturbances may occur secondary to underlying painful conditions such as dental disease, osteoarthritis, or chronic back pain or as a sign again of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, explains veterinarian Dr. William D. Fortney

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