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A dog using abdominal muscles to breathe is something to be concerned about. In a normal, healthy dog, usually the chest muscles are mostly used for breathing so to effectively inflate the lungs.

 This article is mostly a guide about what signs denote trouble breathing in dogs and should not be used as a substitute for veterinary advice. 

If you notice labored breathing in your dog, the best course of action is to see the vet immediately. Labored breathing can be a medical emergency where every second counts.

 Following is some information about the meaning behind a dog using abdominal muscles to breathe in place of the chest muscles.

Normal Breathing in Dogs

A dog's breathing pattern provides a valuable insight into the dog's state of health. Knowing what is normal from abnormal is key to quickly identifying signs of trouble; however, things can get tricky at times when it comes to differentiating normal breathing from abnormal breathing in dogs. 

When in doubt, when it comes to something important as breathing, the best thing to do is to see the vet.

Normal breathing in dogs entails a respiratory rate that is between 20 to 34 breaths per minute. It's important to note that one breathe is one cycle of inspiration and expiration. 

Breathing in dogs should be checked when the dog is at rest, in a relaxed state and in a room that is at an ideal temperature.

The dog being evaluated should not be anxious or excited nor should have been exercised recently. The dog should not be sleeping as REM sleep is when dogs dream and the dog's respiratory rates may increase.

 If counting for an entire minute sounds too long, you can count the number of breaths taken in 30 seconds and then multiply this obtained number by two.

When watching a healthy dog breathing, there should also be no signs of effort in breathing.

The breathing should be rhythmic and should not be labored. Both the dog's abdomen and chest should move in and out together, which is what allows maximum expansion of the lungs. There should not be evidence of the dog using abdominal muscles to breathe.

Did you know? Eupnea is the medical term used to depict a dog's normal respiratory rate and pattern.

Abdominal breathing in dog

Abnormal breathing in dogs should be quickly identified for proper diagnosis and treatment. 

Abnormal Breathing in Dogs 

Abnormal breathing in dogs can sometimes not be quickly identified in dog owners, but here are a few pointers of some signs of trouble that should send some alarm bells that warrant a trip to the vet for evaluation.

Dyspnea, which is the medical term for labored breathing, takes place when the dog appears to be putting effort in breathing.

The labored breathing may occur more when the dog is inhaling (inspiratory dyspnea) or when the dog is exhaling (expiratory dyspnea).

Signs that suggest dyspnea in dogs include the following:

  • Open mouth breathing
  • Nostrils widening when breathing
  • Standing with the elbows sticking out (so to expand the chest cavity)
  • Low head and extended neck posture
  • Pale gums
  • A dog panting and not wanting to lie down 
  • Noisy breathing (unusual sounds such as wheezing, raspy or squeaky sounds)
  • Preference for sleeping on the chest (sternal) rather than the side
  • Chest and sometimes belly area moving more than normal.

 Tachypnea, which is the medical term for increased breathing rate, is fairly easy to be identified by owners familiar with the dog's normal resting respiratory rate. 

Signs that suggest tachypnea in dogs include the following: 

  • The chest wall or belly rising and lowering at a faster rate than usual
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Rapid, yet, shallow breathing.
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Along with these signs, abnormal breathing in dogs, depending on the underlying case may be accompanied by other symptoms such as appetite changes, mood changes exercise intolerance and anxiety.

Dog Using Abdominal Muscles to Breathe

A dog using the abdominal muscles to breathe should raise a red flag that requires medical evaluation. Why would a dog breathe using more the stomach muscles?

When a dog engages in abdominal breathing rather than just using the chest muscles, this can be indicative that the dog is struggling enough to breath that he or she may need to use the abdominal muscles to breathe as well, explains veterinarian Dr. Kara.

Dogs owners therefore will notice the typical rise and fall motions coming from the abdomen area just behind the chest. In abdominal breathing, this is observed mostly in exhalation (when the dog breathes air out).

When a dog is struggling to breathe, he or she will recruit the use of secondary muscles of respiration. These secondary muscles include the muscles that elevate the first two ribs, the sternomastoid neck muscles and the alae nasi muscles known for causing flaring of the nostrils.

 The struggle causes an increase in the chest wall expansion, increased abdominal expiration, breathing with open mouth, and widening of the nostrils, points out Dr. Lesley King, a veterinarian specializing in internal medicine in an article for DVM360.

A dog using extra accessory muscles such of those of the abdomen to breathe can be suggestive of the dog being in significant pain, but it also can be a sign of anemia, presence of fluid in the chest area, chest injuries, asthma, an enlarged heart, heartworm disease, metabolic diseases of organs that negatively affects the body's ability of getting enough oxygen or gases exchanged, and even cancer.

   It can also be sign of a small airway collapse (tracheal or bronchial), especially when the respiratory rate is also increased. 

"If a pet is breathing with greater effort than normal you may see the abdominal muscles (stomach region) moving forcefully in and out with each breath. The chest wall and ribs will move further with each breath." ~Cummings Veterinary Medical Center

At the Vet's Office 

Causes of dog hallucinations

If your dog is using abdominal muscles to breathe, please see your vet.

A dog using abdominal muscles to breathe, should be seen by a vet sooner than later. The vet will ask several questions about when the abdominal breathing in the dog was first noticed, if the dog is eating regularly and if there have been signs of exercise intolerance. 

The vet will typically check the dog's gums and listen to dog's heart and lungs. He may then suggest getting chest x-rays for a closer evaluation.

The chest x-rays may provide an insight into the functioning of the dog's heart and lungs. If there is fluid around the lungs, for instance, the chest x-rays will show a white appearance.

Fluid in the lungs arises when an enlarged, diseased heart is no longer able to effectively pump blood through the circulatory system and fluid ends up leaking out of the blood vessels into the lungs, hence giving the white appearance on the x-rays.

When the lungs are filled with fluid, no oxygen is exchanged which causes the dog to be weak and struggle to breathe, further explains Dr. Kara. Diuretics may help remove some fluid out of the lungs, while heart medications may help temporarily strengthen the heart muscle.

If there is fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion), it needs to be removed so the affected dog can breath normally. The fluid puts pressure on the lungs, and prevents them from expanding as they should and the affected dog is prevented from taking in sufficient oxygen for the body.

Lesions on the lungs, on the other hand, in chest x-rays instead may be indicative of cancer or fungal disease (Valley Fever in the desert southwest or blastomycosis.

If the x-rays shows any masses, further testing may be needed to evaluate what type they are. An ultrasound with the possibility to take a needle aspirate at the same time may be an ideal option.

Because abdominal breathing in dogs may arise secondary to disorders of other systems, the vet may decide to perform several other diagnostic tests. Treatment for labored breathing in dogs causing a dog using abdominal muscles to breathe will vary based on the underlying causes.

"When a dog uses his abdominal muscles to breathe, it indicates that there is significant disease within the chest cavity. This is usually in the form of fluid build up either within the chest cavity surrounding the lungs (pleural effusion) or within the lungs themselves (pulmonary edema)."~Vet Help


  • DVM360: Initial stabilization of dogs in respiratory distress (Proceedings)
  • Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, Breathing Rate – At-home Monitoring of Pets with Heart Disease

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