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Collapsing Trachea in Dogs

Collapsing Trachea in Dogs

               Coughing is a common medical complaint in dogs. Cough may be caused by any number of issues such as infection, asthma/bronchitis, heart disease and tracheal collapse. Collapsing trachea is most commonly diagnosed in middle aged to older small or toy breed dogs such as Maltese and Yorkshire terriers. As they age, the cartilage rings that make up the trachea or windpipe start to deteriorate.  When the dog gets excited or pants or breathes hard, he may start to cough which, in turn narrows the windpipe as the abnormal cartilage rings collapse. Instead of a nice round open tube, the trachea is now more like a tube with the top part caving in or like a “C” shape turned on its side with the open area on top, representing the collapsed tissue. The narrowing or collapse causes further irritation of the windpipe and a chronic dry, non-productive cough.  Dogs with this condition are often described as “honking” like a goose when they cough.

               Diagnosis can be tricky as tracheal collapse is dynamic process. The gold standard used to diagnose collapsing trachea is a moving x-ray picture called a fluoroscope. This allows the doctor to watch the trachea move and collapse in real time. As one can imagine, however, this test is impractical and only a few teaching hospitals or referral centers offer this type of test. More often, we base a diagnosis on the pet’s breed, history of cough that is worse when the pet is excited and by excluding other causes of cough by taking chest x-rays or other diagnostics.  On occasion, we may catch a collapsed, narrow/closed trachea on a plain x-ray if it is taken at just the right time.

               Treatment usually includes reducing stress and excitement, cough suppressants, and sometimes use of anti-inflammatories. Weight management is also helpful as obese pets tend to have a more difficult time with tracheal collapse. Dogs with tracheal collapse should also use a harness rather than a traditional collar to avoid excess pressure on the windpipe when leashed.

Surgical treatment for severe cases may include placement of a mesh stent with the trachea to keep it open or by placing plastic rings around the outside of the trachea to hold it open. The complication rate with surgery is relatively high, so it is typically reserved for severe cases. Tracheal stents are less invasive and this procedure is currently the preferred surgical treatment. While most cases can be managed either medically or surgically, occasionally, pets can go into respiratory arrest and, in rare cases, tracheal collapse can be fatal.

               Tracheal collapse can usually be managed medically, but severe cases are sometimes challenging and it is important to rule out other medical conditions that may be responsible for causing coughing before attempting treatment.

This blog brought to you by the Patton Veterinary Hospital serving Red Lion, York and the surrounding communities.

Photo credit--Wikimedia Commons-Copyright: ©Photographer Johan Frick-Meijer, Sweden,