1. Move the animal to a well-ventilated area.
  2. If the animal is not conscious, assess the ABCs and perform CPR as required.
  3. Minimise stimulation and handling as this can worsen respiratory distress.
  4. Seek immediate veterinary attention.


Difficulty breathing, or dyspnoea, occurs when an animal struggles to obtain enough oxygen.


Signs depend on the underlying cause, but animals may exhibit:

  • Anxiety/worried look
  • Gasping for air
  • Panting
  • Abnormal posture with neck outstretched
  • Abnormal breathing sounds
  • Laboured breathing with obvious inspiratory, expiratory or inspiratory and expiratory effort
  • Abdominal breathing – instead of the chest rising and falling, respiratory effort is more visible at the abdomen
  • Unwillingness to move
  • Weakness
  • Pain
  • Distress
  • Pale gums or blue-tinged gums (cyanosis)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Death


  • Difficulty breathing may be due to disorders of the upper airway (the nose, mouth or larynx), the lower airway (the trachea or lungs) or outside of the airway (within the chest cavity or the remainder of the body).
  • Examples of conditions which may cause upper airway disease include obstruction of the airway with a foreign body (e.g. inhaled food), swelling of the airway (which may occur with an allergic reaction or reaction to a bee or wasp sting, especially if the sting is swallowed), paralysis of the larynx or haemorrhage into the upper airway.
  • Examples of conditions which may cause lower airway disease include infection of the lungs (such as occurs with bacterial, viral or protozoal pneumonia), inflammation of the lungs (such as may occur with near-drowning or aspiration) and cancer (primary or secondary tumours in the lungs).
  • Examples of conditions outside of the airway which may cause difficulty breathing include a fluid or mass in the chest cavity (for example, bleeding between the chest wall and the lungs), disorders of circulation (such as heart disease, profound blood loss or destruction of red blood cells), compression of the lungs by other structures (for example, the liver and intestines in the case of diaphragmatic hernia) and diseases of other body systems that may impact on breathing (for example, toxicities, central nervous system disease and so on).


Veterinary care depends on the underlying cause. Animals with difficulty breathing may require sedation prior to examination. Your veterinarian may provide additional oxygen to your pet.

Your veterinarian will perform a full physical examination and assess your pet. Additional diagnostic tests may include airway examination, chest x-rays, blood and urine tests, aspiration of fluid from the chest or lungs and further imaging (ultrasound, examination of the upper and lower airways using a scope, or a CT scan).

Treatment depends on the underlying cause.


Macintire DK, Drobatz KJ, Haskins SC and Saxon WD (2006) Manual of small animal emergency and critical care medicine. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cote E (2007) Dyspnoea. In Clinical Veterinary Advisor Dogs and Cats ed. Etienne Cote. St Louis: Mosby Elsevier, pp326-327.