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Collapsing Trachea in Dogs: How You Can Help

Author: Dr. Stephanie Austin

Published: February 20, 2024

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senior pomeranian going for a walkWhen we look into our puppies or newly adopted dogs’ eyes for the first time, it's hard to think about them ever getting older.

But as the years pass, we notice the changes that indicate they may be slowing down or things aren’t working quite the way they used to.

And one of those age-related changes may involve their trachea (the tube through which they breathe), which can weaken over time and result in tracheal collapse.

Tracheal collapse doesn't only happen in senior dogs. It's most common in middle-aged to senior dogs but can happen in younger dogs.

What Is Tracheal Collapse?

Firstly, the trachea is a long, flexible, membranous ‘tube’ that extends from the back of the throat to the lungs, through which oxygen travels. It is often referred to as the ‘windpipe.’ It is reinforced by ‘C’ shaped cartilage rings that comprise 5/6ths of its circumference, and these are located on its underside.

The remainder of the trachea is made up of a muscle (the trachealis muscle) that closes the gap between the rings and the top side of the trachea.

Tracheal collapse occurs when the cartilage rings begin to weaken, causing this usually rigid structure to lose its tubular form and the trachea to flatten, particularly when negative pressure is exerted on it, i.e., when a dog inhales, causing a pressure differential (think of drinking a thick-shake through a straw and the straw collapses!).

When this occurs, oxygen cannot travel adequately to the lungs due to the narrowing of this airway. It often causes coughing.

Collapse can occur in one or more areas along the trachea, and there is no rhyme or reason for why a particular area may collapse over another.

Tracheal collapse is a progressive disease that is most common in small-breed dogs like, Pomeranians, Pugs, Toy Poodles, Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Lhasa Apsos, and Yorkshire Terriers. However, it can occur in any size or breed of dog.

Our teammate Mia's Pug, Mabel Petrillo (think Sophia Petrillo of Golden Girls), suffers from this condition. See below for all the things her family does to help her with this condition.

mabel the pug with a collapsed trachea

How Do You Know If Your Dog Has Tracheal Collapse?

As the trachea is the ‘windpipe,’ transporting oxygen from the mouth to the lungs, anytime that its circumference is compromised, it will result in coughing. Thus, this is the most common symptom of tracheal collapse in dogs.

Typically, the resulting cough is dry, harsh, and persistent and is often referred to as a cough that sounds like a ‘goose-honk.’

This video from an animal health convention in 2019 is of Dr. Chick Weisse, Staff Doctor & Head of Interventional Radiology at the Animal Medical Center, and it's worthwhile watching from the beginning, but we've cued it up here to show you how some dogs sound with this condition. Not all dogs do.

At roughly the 10-minute mark, Dr. Weisse shows the inside of the trachea so you can see those rings I mentioned in the previous section, and you can noticeably see the collapsed part of the trachea.

 

Any excitement, stress, overexertion (from exercise), heat, humidity, or even pressure on a dog's neck, like from a collar, may aggravate your dog and cause them to cough. So, these indicators could mean your dog has a collapsed trachea.

As tracheal collapse progresses, a wheezing sound may be noticed when a dog is inhaling, and in more serious cases, an affected dog could have difficulty breathing. As a result, their gums or tongue may turn blue, indicating a lack of oxygen, and they may collapse due to oxygen deprivation. This is considered a medical emergency. You should seek veterinary care immediately!

Due to the ongoing coughing, chronic airway inflammation may result, which can predispose an affected dog to infections in their lungs. Additionally, other health conditions such as heart disease, other lung diseases, and/or obesity may worsen the symptoms of tracheal collapse.

How Is Tracheal Collapse Diagnosed?

Although the classic ‘goose-honk’ cough may give your veterinarian a high suspicion of tracheal collapse, for a definitive diagnosis, x-rays, fluoroscopy (dynamic, moving x-rays), or bronchoscopy (looking down the throat with a light) are required.

X-rays are the most common diagnostic tool used, as the other two options are much more expensive and may require sedation or anesthesia.

Once diagnosed, a dog with tracheal collapse may continue to develop symptoms as the disease progresses and as they age.

Although there is no actual cure for tracheal collapse, most dogs with mild disease can be managed successfully with medicines and live a relatively unaffected, normal life.

How Is Tracheal Collapse in Dogs Treated?

Once diagnosed, your veterinarian will likely try to control the symptoms caused by tracheal collapse, such as coughing, using medication before resorting to more serious options, such as surgery.

Medications used for tracheal collapse include:

  • Cough suppressants

  • Corticosteroids

  • Sedatives or anxiolytics

  • Cerenia, which is an anti-vomiting medication, is often prescribed and works well for some dogs

  • Bronchodilators

  • Antihistamines have been prescribed by some veterinarians as they find the decrease in mucus production and mild to moderate sedative effects may help. However, there are no actual studies providing their efficacy with this disease.

  • And if needed, antibiotics, if an infection were to occur

You could ask your veterinarian about the Auburn Elixir. Apparently, many vets have prescribed it. It has to be compounded, but most compounding pharmacies know how to make it.

Surgery

Surgical correction may be considered in serious cases of tracheal collapse in which medical management was unsuccessful. However, this surgery is uncommon as it is very invasive and only performed in very limited specialty hospitals by specific board-certified veterinary surgeons. Surgery can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $6,500, and this is after all the diagnostic testing, which could be a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

The surgery involves placing a stent in the area(s) of the trachea that has collapsed to assist with maintaining its tubular structure. And, even if the surgery is successful, medical management may need to be continued post-surgery.

In this section of the American Medical Center video, you're shown the journey via bronchoscopy through the trachea, and then they show how a stent is inserted into the trachea. It's not graphic, but it may not be appealing to watch for some people. What you will see is the dog running around the next day after the procedure, which is joyous.

 

 

How to Make Your Dog More Comfortable Living With This Condition

In addition to the medications that your veterinarian may dispense to help control the side effects of tracheal collapse, it’s extremely important to manage any other conditions your dog may have as well as their symptoms.

Disease and Condition Management

Obesity: Maintain your dog's ideal weight. The less your dog has to exert themselves to move around, the easier it is to breathe and the less strain it puts on the trachea muscles. And fat is inflammation, which is something you want to have under control.

Stress and anxiety: Managing stress and anxiety is essential as they increase the likelihood that your dog will start coughing when they feel overwhelmed or scared. There are several methods to try, and if one doesn’t work we suggest trying another, and sometimes a combination works best.

One option is a natural supplement, such as Composure Treats, Zylkene, or Solliquin calming treats. CBD may help with anxiety, but it's important to do your research to ensure you're giving the right dosage and using a trusted brand. Learn more about CBD for dogs here.

Another option is calming pheromone sprays or diffusers such as Thunderease (previously Adaptil). While calming pheromone collars are available, they are not recommended for dogs with a collapsing trachea since the collar needs to be too snug to activate the pheromones, and this could trigger an episode.

Some dog owners dealing with tracheal collapse have had success using the Snuggle Puppy to help calm their dogs and reduce episodes caused by anxiety or stress. The Snuggle Puppy mimics having another dog close by to cuddle with and can provide a feeling of safety, calming a dog down to reduce stress and anxiety.

Snuggle Puppy Behavioral Aid Calming Pet Toy
Snuggle Puppy Behavioral Aid Calming Pet Toy

Mabel the pug barking at something out the windowFor dogs that tend to get excited or stressed and bark due to outside noises, consider playing calming music or using a white noise sound machine to block those noises.

If your dog barks out the window, then you should close curtains or blinds to reduce barking, which can exacerbate their tracheal condition. If you prefer to keep the curtains open, you can try a frosted window cling to block your dog's visual triggers.

Get more tips to stop excessive barking here.

Heart disease: Dogs with heart disease, especially those with congestive heart failure, can have breathing issues and cough frequently. Additionally, some forms of heart disease enlarge the heart, causing it to push against the trachea. Being sure that your dog’s heart disease is well managed helps control breathing issues and coughing that can trigger the trachea to collapse.

Respiratory distress: Trying one of the Pet Health and Nutrition Center's tinctures may improve respiratory function.

During a respiratory emergency, such as when the trachea collapses, providing supplemental oxygen until you can reach a veterinarian for treatment can be lifesaving.

Your veterinarian can help instruct you on how to use supplemental oxygen at home during less severe attacks to help lessen coughing, discomfort, and ease recovery.

 

PawPrint Pet oxygen demonstration

 

Environmental allergies: Managing environmental allergies helps decrease sneezing and coughing episodes that may trigger tracheal collapse. Additionally, since that can affect the gastrointestinal tract, altering the gut microbiome, this can weaken the immune system. A weakened immune system leaves pets more susceptible to other infections that can trigger tracheal collapse.

Inflammation: Adequan injections, Dasuquin, or a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement are often recommended to preserve and help cartilage health.

This relatively new product Jope, developed by veterinarians, will perform double duty since it has the addition of fish oil, which has anti-inflammatory properties.

Fish oils and turmeric supplements have anti-inflammatory properties. The Jope chews mentioned above have turmeric in them, but you can buy turmeric supplement chews. Turmeric is a natural blood thinner, so you need to consult with your veterinarian before starting, especially if your dog is on heart medications.

Antinol may be an anti-inflammatory worth trying. It has turmeric and Omega-3 fatty acids.

This Pet Health & Nutrition Center respiratory tincture can help with inflammation. Licorice root and ginger root are anti-inflammatory and are in some of their supplements as well.

Marshmallow root helps to provide a soothing protective film over mucus membranes lessening irritation; it eases minor pain and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. It's an ingredient in the Auburn Elixir mentioned in the medication section.

Acupuncture has been shown to alleviate clinical symptoms of tracheal collapse. Studies also show it helps regulate inflammation and anxiety.

Cartilage: Stem cell therapy may decrease inflammation and could change into cartilage.

Lifestyle changes

Get a harness: Change from attaching a leash to a collar to a harness. This prevents putting pressure on the trachea when an affected dog is being walked. Here are some ideal harnesses to choose from.

Avoid excessive heat and humid conditions: Increased heat and humidity (wetness) cause dogs to breathe more heavily, which can cause coughing.

Avoid excessive excitement, stress, and anxiety: These mental states typically cause heavier breathing, tension to the muscles of the neck, and coughing.

Avoid irritants in the air: Cigarette smoke, incense, aerosol sprays, carpet powders, cleaners, or anything that could irritate the airways, resulting in coughing or breathing issues.

Grooming: If you have your dog groomed, be sure to inform the groomer that your dog has a collapsing trachea, so they do not use any neck restraints when they are grooming them.

Additionally, be sure they do not put them in a cage dryer since this may cause them to pant more from the increased temperature and stress, which may trigger an episode. Request that they be only hand-dried.

Can You Prevent Tracheal Collapse?

The short answer is no. This is because tracheal collapse is a progressive disease based on genetics and predisposition.

There is no way to necessarily prevent tracheal collapse from occurring, but there are ways to possibly reduce the severity if your dog is predisposed to the condition (like for Pugs and Toy Poodles). Deploy the management techniques listed above to help slow down the progression of this condition.

mabel the pug lying in her bed

What Is Working for Mabel the Pug

Mabel was adopted by her family when she was roughly 10 years old. She's now 14 (ish). She's suffered from a collapsed trachea from the day they adopted her. Here's what her family has tried to keep her comfortable and as symptom-free as possible.

  • CT Collapsed Trachea FB GroupMabel started on Butorphanol (a pain medication that is primarily used for controlling coughing in small animals) and was on it for over three years – doing fairly well. The one downside to this medication was it couldn't be taken in conjunction with her antihistamines, which she needs due to her severe allergies – which cause her to become very congested.

    So now, Mabel is on Lomotil and Hydroxyzine medications. Her owner joined a Facebook group seeking support, and it is where she learned about the medications to discuss with her veterinarian.

    The featured screenshot is from the group and is one proof point that the drug that Mabel is now on has helped other dogs. Many more pet owners in the group swear by it.

    Word of caution: Facebook groups are great for finding support when dealing with difficult medical issues that pets may have. Pet owners can also learn of alternative treatment options that may have been prescribed by veterinarians for other pets suffering from the same condition.


    However, some treatments are not prescribed nor recommended by veterinarians. Those treatments can be harmful, if not fatal, to pets. Please be sure to always consult with a veterinarian before ever trying something new. Even the simplest and seemingly safe options can have devastating effects on pets, especially those that may have other medical issues or conditions.

  • Mabel is not one to like just any bed, but this bolstered bed is one she uses consistently. Perhaps it props up her neck and makes her more comfortable. The one downfall of this bed is that it states that it can't be put in the washing machine. So spot cleaning with a product like Unique's Pet Bed Cleaner is a good option to use, or many other similar beds can be put in the washer, like Pet Fusion's bed.

  • Mabel's parents use two cool mist humidifiers in their home because they know if Mabel dries out, she gets coughy.

  • They also keep their house as cool as possible and minimize her time outside on warm days to reduce the possibility and frequency of her panting, as this can predispose her to an episode of coughing.

  • Additionally, they use chemical-free and scent-free products as often as possible to reduce any respiratory irritants. They recently replaced all of their pet and household cleaners with the iClean® Mini because there are no chemicals or scents. It takes tap water and turns it into a non-toxic cleaner that is 50% stronger than bleach. Mabel's parents use it everywhere.
Mabel and Mazel posing with the iClean Mini pet safe cleaner deodorizer
  • They tried Manuka honey*. Mabel loved it, but she got more congested on it, so they stopped giving it (other pet owners swear by it). It may help soothe throat irritation, but you must ensure that you don't use it on diabetic dogs. Also, honey will contribute to weight gain, so keep that in mind.

    *You may want to use honey from your local region, especially if your dog has environmental allergies.

If your dog has a collapsed trachea, I wish you the best in managing your pup's condition!

Let us know if you have any questions or have found things that have helped your dog in the comments section below.

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Stephanie Austin

Dr. Stephanie Austin

Dr. Stephanie received her Bachelor of Science (Maj. Vet tech) from the University of Queensland, Australia, in 2006. After graduation, she moved to the other side of her beautiful, sunny country, to the most isolated city in the world (Perth, Australia), to begin her veterinary degree at Murdoch University. 5 years later, she received a dual degree in Veterinary Biology and Veterinary Medicine and Surgery.

After all this schooling, Dr. Stephanie packed her things, her beloved Labrador & fluffy cat, and made the big move to the USA. She lives and practices at a clinic in the “big apple.”