Tracheal collapse can be a very stressful diagnosis for any dog owner, primarily because the condition is not reversible. We all want our dogs to live long, healthy lives, so when a dog receives a difficult diagnosis from the vet, it is natural to despair about how long we may be able to keep our furry companions around while still being humane.
Deciding when to euthanize a dog with tracheal collapse can be daunting; however, with a thorough understanding of what tracheal collapse is, how it affects dogs, and how it can be treated or managed, you may feel better equipped to make that decision.
What Is Tracheal Collapse?
To understand tracheal collapse, it is first important to understand the trachea itself. The trachea (windpipe) is an integral part of a dog’s respiratory system, consisting of a flexible tube made of connective tissue and muscle that stretches from the larynx (voice box) to the bronchi (pathways to the lungs). Cartilage rings support the trachea, preventing the closure of the airway during actions such as breathing and barking.
A helpful visual analogy for the trachea is a vacuum hose, which is usually a tube supported by ringed segments that prevent the tube from closing. If these rings are weakened, though, it is possible that a vacuum hose may lose its structural strength and may sag in the weaker areas; similarly, tracheal collapse involves the weakening or flattening of the tracheal cartilage, leading to a flattened airway.
Tracheal collapse may occur in the part of the trachea in the dog’s neck, or in the chest. If the collapse is in the neck, the dog will have more difficulty breathing in, while a chest collapse leads to more difficulty breathing out. Thus, when a dog has a collapsed trachea, the clearest symptoms present as respiratory difficulties: the dog may have trouble with breathing, may cough and pant more often, and may have difficulty exercising.
Tracheal collapse is more of a risk for smaller breeds of dogs, including toy and miniature breeds, than larger dogs. Examples of breeds more likely to be affected include Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Shih Tzus, Toy Poodles, and Yorkshire Terriers. Although younger dogs may experience tracheal collapse, it is more common in middle aged or older dogs.
Tracheal collapse in dogs may be related to obesity and may present alongside additional cardiovascular or pulmonary diseases.
Symptoms of Tracheal Collapse in a Dog
The symptoms of tracheal collapse may differ depending on the severity of tracheal collapse, but in general include:
These symptoms may worsen depending on environmental factors such as smoke, allergens, and poor air quality. Additionally, dogs with tracheal collapse may exhibit worse symptoms after barking, wearing a collar or tugging on a leash, or becoming excited.
If you believe your dog may have a collapsed trachea, it is important to have them examined by a veterinarian for a few reasons. The inflammation caused by coughing worsens a dog’s ability to breath and has the potential to completely obstruct your dog’s airway; additionally, if left unaddressed, respiration through a collapsed trachea increases strain on the heart and lungs.
Another reason to have your dog seen by a vet is that tracheal collapse is not the only condition that may cause symptoms like prolonged or honking coughs: for instance, tracheitis also presents these symptoms but—unlike tracheal collapse—is due to inflammation of the trachea and can be caused by an infection.
Causes of of a Dog’s Tracheal Collapse
As previously mentioned, tracheal collapse is more common in smaller dog breeds. Though the exact cause of tracheal collapse is still unknown, it is possible that there is a genetic component due to the increased likelihood of tracheal collapse some breeds experience.
The causes of this condition are not always as straightforward as its symptoms. While older dogs are more likely than younger dogs to experience tracheal collapse, it may also affect younger dogs.
Unfortunately, some dogs may have naturally weaker tracheal cartilage; in some cases, tracheal collapse may be exacerbated by a dog’s behaviors—such as regularly tugging on a leash. Additionally, tracheal collapse can be worsened by obesity, due to additional pressure on the windpipe caused by excess weight.
The treatment of tracheal collapse depends on the severity of the condition. While some dogs may require more invasive treatments such as surgery, others may improve through lifestyle changes such as weight loss or stress reduction.
It is important to note that tracheal collapse is not a reversible condition, and respiratory problems such as coughing are likely to continue even after treatment. That being said, many of the treatments available for a dog experiencing tracheal collapse—especially early in its course—may extend the dog’s life and reduce discomfort.
It may be useful to conceptualize these treatment options as palliative measures, which focus on pain relief and stress reduction, and are often inappropriately solely considered to be end-of-life measures.
Lifestyle Change Treatments
For obese dogs with tracheal collapse, weight loss may greatly reduce discomfort. While exercise is important in helping to stave off obesity in the first place, obese dogs with tracheal collapse will need to have their exercise monitored in order to avoid exacerbating respiratory stress. A veterinarian is the best resource in determining how much and what type of exercise is appropriate for an obese dog with tracheal collapse; at a minimum, though, it is a good idea to encourage weight loss through a careful diet.
Another lifestyle change that may help a dog with tracheal collapse is the use of a dog harness or tactical harness rather than a collar. Because collars can exert a fair bit of pressure on the windpipe, a body harness is a safer choice because it does not place pressure solely on the neck.
It is important to try to minimize respiratory triggers for a dog with a collapsed trachea. A few ways a dog’s environment might be improved include limiting exposure to outdoor allergens like pollen and indoor allergens like dust. Additionally, it is advisable not to smoke around dogs in general, though extra care should be taken for those dogs with tracheal collapse. A humidifier may also help ease discomfort, especially during winter months during which heaters are used.
A final—though potentially difficult—lifestyle change that may help dogs with tracheal collapse is a reduction of stress and excitement in the dog’s life. This may be particularly difficult for nervous dogs, but limiting exposure to things that cause excitement or stress (and, thereby, excess barking that could lead to coughing) is likely to help any dog with tracheal collapse.
Medical Management and Surgical Treatments
To find out how severe your dog’s tracheal collapse is, it is important to have a vet assess them. For dogs with mild cases of tracheal collapse or dogs who are not good candidates for surgical intervention, medical management may be a good treatment option.
Medical management of tracheal collapse generally consists of medications that assist in weight loss, reduce inflammation, control cough, and reduce anxiety. Veterinarians may accomplish this through the use of medications such as cough suppressants, sedatives, steroids, and bronchodilators; again, it is important to have a vet assess what medication would best help a pup with tracheal collapse.
While medical treatment can help many dogs with a collapsed trachea, it will not help in every case. It is also important to note that medical management of tracheal collapse must be continued even when symptoms improve, due to the tenuous and progressive nature of the condition. There may also be a point where the dog’s tracheal collapse stops responding to medications, and the vet will need to assess whether other treatments such as surgery may help.
Surgical treatment of tracheal collapse usually consists of the placement of a tracheal stent. Stents are mesh tubes placed in body passageways to keep them open; in the case of tracheal stents, the tube helps reinforce the sagging trachea.
Although stenting may sound like a logical solution, stents do not always work as intended and may cause more irritation or coughing. Additionally, stents that are too small may move within the trachea, and depending on the placement, some stents may break or be dislodged by movement.
Nevertheless, in cases in which no other option is viable, stents and other surgical treatments may greatly help dogs with tracheal collapse.
When Is It Time to Say Goodbye?
When tracheal collapse is detected early, outcomes are much better, especially when the symptoms can be managed through lifestyle changes or effective medical means. However, in some cases tracheal collapse may be found alongside heart problems or other respiratory conditions, which can complicate outcomes.
You should be aware of the signs that a dog is dying and consult with your vet if you observe them in your dog.
In cases in which tracheal collapse is caught early, it is not uncommon for life expectance to be projected for another two-to-four years. That being said, if lifestyle changes and medical management work, it is possible for the dog’s life to be extended beyond four years.
Your vet should be able to give you a realistic assessment of the severity of your dog’s tracheal collapse and should be able to direct you on the most appropriate next steps. It is understandable, though, if you decide that your dog’s quality of life would be too diminished to pursue invasive treatment.
Tracheal collapse can be a distressing condition to witness, especially when your dog appears stressed and has difficulty breathing. Thankfully, there are many treatment options for tracheal collapse, though it is important to know that it cannot be reversed.
With milder cases, dogs may live comfortable lives through lifestyle changes or medical management, though in some cases, it may be more humane to euthanize a dog with tracheal collapse due to low quality of life.
Your vet will be able to help you assess the severity of your dog’s tracheal collapse, and will be able to help you determine next steps.