The condition known as tracheal collapse in dogs refers to a problem with the trachea, or windpipe of the dog, which can lead to problems with breathing. The windpipe or trachea itself is the channel through which air breathed through the nose and mouth is carried into the lungs for respiration, and the trachea itself is held open by a series of rings of sturdy cartilage that support the structure.
In some cases, however, the rings of cartilage that support the trachea weaken and begin to collapse, causing a narrowing of the trachea, and difficulty in breathing.
The precise cause of tracheal collapse in the dog is unknown, but it is thought to be caused by a congenitally inherited defect or abnormality. This abnormality is believed to cause the cartilage rings of the trachea to be weaker than normal, and over time, they will gradually atrophy and be unable to support the windpipe.
The condition is genetically inherited, and most commonly affects small breeds of dog such as the Yorkshire Terrier, which is by far the most commonly affected breed. It affects both dogs and bitches equally, and usually does not become symptomatic until the dog is mature, often around the age of six or seven years old.
The most well-recognised and obvious symptom of tracheal collapse in the dog is an unusual cough that is usually likened to a honking sound, made as the dog attempts to open their windpipe in order to breathe in enough air. As the condition is progressive, the severity and frequency of the cough will worsen over time.
Other symptoms of the condition can include a reluctance to exercise normally or to be as active as the dog used to be, due to an inability to get enough air, and in severe cases, a blue-ish tinge to the gums may be present as the dog is simply unable to get enough oxygen into their lungs.
The condition can be worsened and show more pronounced symptoms in very hot weather when the dog will need to pant to cool down, or if the dog is overweight, leading to laboured breathing.
In order to get a formal diagnosis of the condition, you will need to take your dog along to the vet. While the ubiquitous honking cough will almost certainly convince your vet of the diagnosis, further tests are necessary in order to confirm the presence of the condition, and establish how bad it is. X-rays and potentially fluoroscopy will also be used, in order to gather a clear picture of the trachea and how pronounced the degree of collapse is.
Generally, tracheal collapse is not treated surgically, and the condition can be treated and managed on an ongoing basis through medication. Corticosteroids may be prescribed to control inflammation that can further narrow the airway, cough suppressants used to relax the muscles, and bronchodilators administered to open up the airways and allow more air to enter the lungs.
If the dog is overweight or obese, weight management to bring them back down to a healthy weight is also important. Generally, these steps will provide a significant improvement in the health of over 70% of dogs with tracheal collapse, but they do mean that ongoing medication and treatment will be required for the remainder of the dog’s life.
If the dog’s health does not improve within a couple of weeks of a medication treatment protocol, or if the dog is not a good candidate for medication therapy, surgery may be used in its place. There are various different surgical approaches to tracheal collapse, but the most common method involves inserting synthetic rings made of polypropylene around the outside of the trachea to hold it open, in the way that would normally be fulfilled by the failed cartilage rings within the windpipe.
The success rate of surgical intervention of this type is between 75-85%, but the surgery is expensive, and may not be suitable for all dogs, particularly older dogs. Generally, the procedure has to be undertaken at a specialist referral clinic, as most general practices do not have the tools or specialist experience necessary to carry out the procedure.
For any dog that has suffered from tracheal collapse, however it was ultimately treated, there are some steps that the dog owner can take to help to keep their dog’s windpipe clear in the future and allow the surgery or medications used to have the best chances of being effective.
Weight control is the most important element of this, as carrying excess fat will have a negative affect on the trachea and breathing. Also, switching from a neck collar to a chest harness will ensure that undue pressure is not placed upon the trachea when walking on the lead.