Heavy Panting in Pets: Hidden Meanings

Most people know that panting is a normal part of a dog’s behaviour.  It’s one of the main methods they cool themselves off instead of sweating like us humans.  It’s normal for them to pant when excited, energetic, and after bouts of activity.  Heavy panting, however, though it may look the same, can have hidden meanings:

Heat Stroke:  If your dog is panting excessively, seems weak and has just spent time in a hot/humid environment, it could be dangerously over-heated.  For some dogs, even just too much vigorous activity on a warm day could cause these signs.  Dogs at risk are those who are:  brachycephalic (short snout), obese, have lung problems (asthma, COPD) or a known heart condition.

Anxiety:  If is dog is uncomfortable in a situation (anxious) they have quite a few behaviours that are considered ‘Calming Signals’; or in other words ‘dog language’ for: “I’m freaking out man!”  Panting is definitely one of them, as well as:  looking away, licking their nose, yawning, tucking their tails/ears, pacing, tremoring and sometimes excessive grooming.

Pain:  Same as in people, pain typically causes rapid, laboured breathing.  Dogs will pant from pain whether it is from a sudden injury (may be obvious) or a chronic ailment (less obvious).   Other signs of pain in dogs can be:  dilated pupils, decreased appetite, reluctance to lie down, restlessness, licking/biting the sore spot.

Chronic Diseases:

  • Cushing’s:  This is a medical condition that results in excessive hormones (ie: cortisol: the stress hormone) being produced in the body.  One of the side effects of having too much stress hormone can be heavy panting.
  • Heart Disease:  When the heart begins to ‘fail’ from a pre-existing heart condition, fluid will begin to build up in the tissues of the lungs.  The very first sign of this (even before coughing) is more rapid/laboured breathing; even while resting.
  • Respiratory Disease:  Asthma, COPD, laryngeal paralysis, brachycephalic syndrome, etc. are conditions that could potentially cause heavy panting in dogs.

Medications and Toxins:  Heavy panting can also be a side effect of many medications (ie: prednisone) or could be sign of pain/nausea associated with either a medication or toxic substance.

Essentially, if your dog is panting harder than normal, longer than usual, and it hasn’t just exerted itself in any way, there may actually be some underlying issue.  If this pattern continues or worsens, you should make an appointment with your vet for a general check-up.