Airway Abnormalities of Kittens and Puppies!

The incidence of airway abnormalities in kittens and puppies happens at a much lower rate than coughing or Upper Respiratory Infections (URI). Some breeds have more issues with airway abnormalities than others. Though URI issues will point out a malformation, the URI issue did not cause it. Difficult URI just points out the breathing issue.

Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome:

This issue is not seen as often today as in the past but it is set up by breeding a pushed in nose. Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome is considered genetic but no inheritance has been determined. Bulldog breeders have bred away from this issue and Airway Syndrome is less common than in the past. The breeds identified as high risk for brachycephalic syndrome are English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Shih-Tzu and Boxers. The elongated soft palate can interfere with the airway at the larynx but stenotic nares (see below) are more commonly seen! Be aware as both of these issues can be present. Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome is not a common occurrence in cat breeds but we do see it.


Generally seen at two weeks of age; difficulty on inspiration or “pulling to breathe”, mouth breathing, and interrupted sleep. The nares collapse which act as a one-way valve and increases negative pressure causing collapse and narrowing of the airway. Collapsed nares should be corrected at weaning to avoid the secondary airway narrowing. This inspiratory turbulence caused by narrowing and negative pressure causes irritation, swelling and noise or stridor breathing which is often seen in these breeds.

Correcting a soft palate elongation is usually done at an older age 6-8 months, unless severe. This surgery is much more involved and it carries an anesthetic risk.

Stenotic Nares:

Stenotic nares are often seen in both dogs and cats without Brachycephalic Syndrome. The condition happens when the nares cartilage is pinched in. These puppies do not tolerate exercise and are often viewed as quiet because they cannot get their air when active.


Surgical correction of the nares is easy, quick and should be done early to avoid secondary airway and trachea issues from developing. Laser removal is a good choice here to avoid light colored scar tissue on the black nasal tissue. The collapse wings of the nares can be removed to give a more normal look. Nares alteration is minimal and visually pleasing when done correctly. Puppies and kittens can breathe normally post-surgery.

Hypoplastic Trachea:

Often owners or breeders call and ask about hypoplastic trachea. Though these small tracheas happen they are usually associated with severe clinical airway issues. They are often seen in Bulldogs and Bostons and to a lesser extent in Boxers but we have diagnosed in Yorkies and Chihuahuas as well. The trachea cartilage rings overlap rather than forming a “C” shape causing a much smaller diameter opening to breathe through. Passing out, exercise intolerant and respiratory distress, are all typical signs seen with a too small trachea.


The diagnosis is usually done on X-Ray. The trachea should be at least two times the diameter of the third rib where the trachea crosses. Most cases have quite small diameter trachea and easily diagnosed when seen. There is no good treatment option available as we cannot replace the trachea.

Cleft Palate:

This opening in the palate or roof of the mouth allows milk to enter nose while nursing. Some cleft palates are severe enough for milk to be aspirated into the lungs.

Genetic Causes:

A cleft palate can be caused by genetics and breeds considered to be predisposed are Beagles, Cockers, Dachshunds, German Shepherds, Labradors, Schnauzers and Shetland Sheep dogs – not the breeds most think of. Cleft palate has different modes of inheritance in different breeds. See your breed standards or call and we will help if you are seeing.

Siamese cats are considered to have an increased risk of cleft palate though it is seen in other breeds as well.

Drug Cause:

The cleft closes between the 21st and 32nd day of gestation and certain drugs given during this time can cause a cleft palate. Known drugs that can cause a cleft palate are Primidone, Griseofulvin, Sulfa antibiotic and Metronidazole. Be sure to use caution when treating a mom especially until over 40 days pregnant!

Collapse Trachea:

This is usually an issue with adults rather than puppies. This issue usually develops later in life and small to tiny breed dogs are affected. The trachea collapses flat like a soft hose and vibrates when they cough. Collapsed trachea dogs honk or cough like a goose and repeat the honk many times in a row when excited. Cough tabs can help with this coughing.


We don’t know if it is genetic but we always want to document any line that has it. The cause is thought to be weak cartilage rings in the trachea that allow collapse. The trigger is often repeated bouts of kennel cough or respiratory issues as a teenager. This is why it is important to give kennel cough vaccine to babies you are shipping to the next home. You want to avoid this issue if possible.


You can only treat the symptoms in most cases with prescription cough suppressants. Occasionally, surgery is needed if the issue is severe enough.

Everything has some inheritance so always look for issues you can breed away from. Airway abnormalities are no different but make sure you did not cause with drugs given to mom during pregnancy. If it doesn’t help the baby, we should not put it in a pregnant mom and only if it is safe!

- Dr. B

The materials, information and answers provided through this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of a qualified veterinarian or other pet health care professional. Consult your own veterinarian for answers to specific medical questions, including diagnosis, treatment, therapy or medical attention.

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