Ask the Vet: What is tracheal collapse?
Perhaps you are a dog owner and have heard that intermittent “goose-honking” couch that has a sudden onset when you dog is pulling on the leash.
A temporary tracheal collapse may be responsible for your dog’s abnormal respiratory noises.
Tracheal collapse is when the cartilage rings of the trachea (windpipe) lose their rigidity and stretch, causing mild to more severe flattening and obstruction of the airway. The rings of the trachea are shaped like the letter C, but when the dog experiences tracheal collapse, the space within the C is flattened. Tracheal collapse typically occurs in small or toy breed dogs, such as miniatures poodles, Chihuahua, Pomeranian, and Yorkies.
Contrary to popular belief, this is an acquired disease. It occurs more frequently in older dogs, as the cartilage loses its rigidity and has been stretched throughout years, such as by being pressed on by a collar, ie, pulling on a leash. The cause is not well-understood, but genetic factors, neurologic factors, and general degeneration are believed to be involved.
The signs the dog owner sees usually involve noisy coughing, but may progress to exercise intolerance, fainting, and blue gums and tongues from lack of oxygen. Pet owners may notice a distinct cough when pressure is applied to the trachea.
A physical exam by the vet with tracheal palpation may reveal abnormally weakened tracheal rings. Chest x-rays can identify the problem, but only about 60% of the time due to problems if the x-ray is taken on inspiration or expiration. The definitive diagnosis is by endoscopy, but this test does have some inherent risks and it not performed in all patients, especially those where the problem is not severe and a medical problem.
So what does that leave a dog owner to do when they suspect tracheal collapse? If the problem is mild, it can be alleviated by using a leash that does not pull on the throat, such as a harness. For more serious cases, medical management (bronchial dilators, anti-inflammatories, and cough suppressants) is usually effective. In addition, avoiding high temperatures, situations that cause intense excitement, and if your pet is overweight, losing weight have also been shown to help.
For more serious cases where Fido is adversely affected, surgical correction may be of benefit. Surgery is reserved for dogs whose quality of life is compromised by this condition and have little to no response to medical or environmental therapies. Stents can be placed inside the trachea to support it and prevent collapse usually via endoscopy or fluoroscopy. When surgery is necessary, it usually does improve the quality of the dog’s life and lessens the clinical signs, however there are often side effects of the surgery, such as the potential complication of laryngeal paralysis. Also, with this being a condition that worsens with age, symptoms may reappear throughout the dog’s life even with a successful surgery.
Overall, the prognosis of most dogs with tracheal collapse is relatively promising. Most dogs can be managed with medical intervention. Close monitoring of the disease and the pet’s ability to breathe and exercise comfortably is recommended, and if you ever have any questions, you should promptly ask a vet.
Laci Schaible, DVM is a veterinarian and practices in Pennsylvania with her husband, also a veterinarian. In their spare time, they enjoy writing about pet health and educating pet owners how to be better advocates for their furkids.