Yesterday I helped four amazing animals cross over the Rainbow Bridge. They ranged in size from 1 lb (a ferret) to 140 lb (a St. Bernard). Each was a beloved family member. Three had cancer; one had severe arthritis resulting from hip dysplasia and possibly the start of a spinal neurologic disease. Family members of the 3 dogs told me that, among other things, their dogs had been panting heavily even when at rest in the cool house, and they were quite restless.
My message to you today is this: a dog that is panting while at rest in a temperate room is telling us something. Panting is how dogs regulate their body temperature, through evaporative cooling from the tongue, because they don’t sweat like we do. [Note that there are a few rare conditions in which dogs do “sweat”, technically referred to as hyperhidrosis]. So if Fido is hanging out in his dog bed in a 70 degree room with the ceiling fan moving air, and he’s panting hard, we should take note and react.
What to do? First step is a vet exam. Your vet has to consider a pretty long list of diseases that can cause dogs and cats to pant, including respiratory, cardiovascular, hematologic, neurologic, and hormonal causes. Obesity, high altitude, anxiety, pain, laryngeal paralysis, and certain drugs can also cause panting. The goal is to identify the cause and correct it with treatment.
If your vet tells you that he or she believes heavy panting is caused by pain, you should leave the clinic with a plan to relieve the pain, which may include drugs, acupuncture, laser and/or physical therapy, and home modifications to help your pet.
You may have a different scenario play out than the one I just described, and this is how it was for the dogs I helped yesterday. These dogs were diagnosed earlier this year with cancer and arthritis. Panting was not a feature of their conditions at the time of diagnosis. However, as their diseases progressed, they did start to pant heavily and were often restless. Again, these are our signs that something is wrong.
Pet guardians have told me countless times that they expected their pets would whimper, whine, or cry to show they are in pain. Unfortunately, the signs of pain are typically much more subtle, and they include heavy panting, trembling, restlessness or not wanting to move around. From a survival standpoint, making sounds when ill only draws in a predator. When dogs and cats do vocalize due to pain, we know that they are experiencing significant, perhaps severe pain.
When your pet has a progressive disease that causes pain, the pain management plan you start with will often need to change over time. If tweaks to the plan don’t result in greater comfort for your pet, you should look at your pet’s overall Quality of Life (see one QoL scale you can use here). I always encourage my clients to keep a simple daily journal, which can help you to see trends over a period of time. If you’ve documented increasing doses of pain medication and other interventions but note continued panting, restlessness, and trembling, your best buddy isn’t comfortable.
The brave families I met yesterday all recognized they had reached this point and made the most difficult decision we face as pet owners. To Deacon, Loki, Sadie, and Sebastian: run free at the Bridge, until we all meet again.