When to be concerned about heavy breathing in older dogs and what to do about it

Older dogs may not be as spry and youthful as they used to be, but they’ll always be our babies. As your dog ages, he’ll begin taking things at a more leisurely pace. His muzzle may turn gray, and he may develop arthritis. But breathing problems in older dogs are frightening, especially if they come on suddenly.

Some breeds, such as flat-faced dogs like English bulldogs, French bulldogs, and pugs commonly suffer from breathing problems, but it can occur in any breed. You’ve probably stumbled upon this article after searching “old dog breathing heavy,” and you’ve come to the right place. We’ll go over the reasons your dog could be breathing heavily, what you should do about it, and when you should contact your vet. 

An old black Labrador retriever with a gray muzzle lies panting in the grass.

What causes heavy breathing in older dogs?

Most dogs pant from time to time, and it becomes more common as your dog ages. For the most part, this is nothing to worry about, especially if your pup has just been out for a walk. Dogs can’t sweat the way we can, and panting allows your dog to cool off by evaporating heat and moisture through his respiratory tract. But when there’s no apparent cause for heavy breathing, it’s only natural to be concerned. Here are some of the reasons your old dog may be breathing heavily. 

1. Asthma

Common symptoms of asthma in dogs include heavy breathing, rapid panting, coughing, lethargy, loss of appetite, and blue-tinted gums. If your dog suddenly begins exhibiting the aforementioned symptoms, take him to the vet immediately. 

2. Anxiety

In addition to panting, dogs suffering from anxiety may exhibit destructive behaviors, urinate or defecate indoors, and show additional signs of distress. While it’s upsetting to see your fur baby feeling so anxious, anxiety isn’t a medical emergency, though we still recommend that you contact your vet. 

3. Heart failure

As dogs age, they become more susceptible to age-related diseases. One of the most common is congestive heart failure. If your dog has a swollen belly, seems fatigued, experiences a loss of appetite, seems unsettled at bedtime, or becomes exercise intolerant, he may be suffering from heart failure.  

4. Medication

Some medications prescribed for health conditions may cause rapid or heavy breathing. One of the worst culprits is prednisone, a steroid frequently prescribed to combat arthritis-related inflammation. Speak to your vet about any potential side effects your dog may experience while taking prescription medications. 

An old brown dog lying on a comfortable bed.

5. Metabolic acidosis

Caused by an excess of acidity in the bloodstream, metabolic acidosis can lead to heart problems and mineral loss in your dog’s bones. Heavy breathing, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are common symptoms. If left untreated, metabolic acidosis is life-threatening, so take your pup to the vet immediately if he exhibits these symptoms.

6. Obesity

Excess weight puts unnecessary strain on your dog’s heart and respiratory system. Feed him a nutrient-rich diet, make sure he gets plenty of exercise, and talk to your vet if he has trouble losing weight. 

7. Pain

Arthritis is common in older dogs, and its pain can cause labored breathing. If your pup has already been diagnosed with arthritis, giving him a baby aspirin can help relieve his discomfort and calm his breathing. 

8. Respiratory problems

Respiratory conditions can run the gamut from the common cold and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (also known as COPD). Monitor your dog’s breathing for an hour or two, and if he’s still breathing heavily, it’s time to see the vet.  

9. Thyroid problems

Skin conditions, heavy breathing, weight gain, and excess shedding are all symptoms of a condition often found in older dogs — hypothyroidism. Only a vet can properly diagnose your pooch with a thyroid problem and prescribe the necessary medications to control it. 

How to tell if your dog is breathing heavily

If your pooch is breathing heavily, it doesn’t automatically mean the problem is in his lungs. Just as with humans, a dog’s respiratory system consists of the lungs, the trachea (commonly known as the windpipe), the throat, the nose, and the mouth. Anything from a blocked nose caused by seasonal allergies to something more serious, like heart disease, can cause labored breathing (also known as dyspnea) or fast breathing (also known as tachypnea).

The average dog breathes at a rate of around 15–30 breaths per minute, with slightly lower rates still considered within the normal range. When your dog is calm, set an alarm for one minute and count out his breaths. If your pup is taking more than 30 breaths per minute while he’s resting, it’s a sign of tachypnea. It’s no real cause for concern if you’ve just come back from romping in the yard with your pup, but a prolonged average resting breath rate above 30 should be addressed by your veterinarian as quickly as possible. 

An old Boxer lying on a brown sofa.

Final thoughts

Dogs are beloved members of the family, and we want what’s best for them. While your older pup’s heavy breathing may be due to his weight or a sudden heatwave, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. You should take your dog to the vet right away if he appears to be in distress. We recommend a checkup even if heavy breathing is the only symptom he exhibits, but there’s no need to stress if that’s the case. 

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