What are airway conditions in dogs and cats and how common are they? 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 or breathing issue, the URI issue does not cause the abnormality. So what are the upper airway issues in dogs and cats? Let’s take a closer look.
Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome: BOAS in Dogs
Brachycephalic airway syndrome is not seen as often today as in the past, but it is seen in the pushed-in nose breeds. The breeds identified as high risk for Brachycephalic Syndrome are English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Pekingese, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Shih Tzus and Boxers. Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome can be seen in flat-faced cat breeds, as well. The syndrome is considered genetic but no inheritance has been determined.
Animals that suffer from this syndrome experience partial obstruction of the upper airway. This obstruction could be caused by one or more abnormalities, including narrowed nostrils (stenotic nares), an elongated soft palate, collapse of the larynx, or an abnormally small (Hypoplastic) trachea.
While all of these abnormalities can interfere with the airway, stenotic nares (see below) are most commonly seen. Be aware as two or more issues can be present.
BOAS in Dogs Symptoms
Boas symptoms in dogs are generally seen at two weeks of age. Symptoms include difficulty inhaling, mouth breathing, gagging, coughing, snoring, inability to exercise, difficulty nursing, eating or swallowing, and interrupted sleep. These problems often become worse in warm and humid weather, as dogs cannot efficiently cool themselves by panting.
Stenotic Nares in Puppies and Kittens
Stenotic nares are often seen in both dogs and cats without Brachycephalic Syndrome. Collapsed nares and a narrowed airway cause irritation, swelling and noise or stridor breathing, often seen in these breeds. The condition happens when the nares cartilage is pinched in. The nares collapse and act as a one-way valve, blocking airway on inspiration. Collapsed nares should be surgically corrected at weaning to avoid the secondary airway issues.
How Can I Help My Puppy With Stenotic Nares
Surgical correction of the nares is easy and quick and should be done early. Laser removal is a good choice here to avoid light-colored scar tissue on the black nasal tissue. The collapsed wings of the nares can be removed to give a more normal look and function. Nares alteration is minimal and visually pleasing when done correctly. Puppies and kittens can breathe normally post-surgery.
Soft Palate Elongation
An elongated soft palate on dogs and cats occurs when the soft palate extends into the back of the throat and partially blocks the airflow to the trachea. Symptoms include snoring and choking, and some may pass out when severe.
Elongated Soft Palate Treatment
Correcting a soft palate elongation is done at an older age, six to eight months, unless severe. This surgery is much more involved, and it carries an anesthetic risk. Putting elongated soft palate patients under anesthetics can cause muscle and tissue relaxation, and the heavy throat area can block the animal’s airway until standing. Tracheal tubes and oxygen are needed until he is standing.
Hypoplastic Trachea in Dogs
Often owners or breeders call and ask about Hypoplastic Trachea in dogs. Though rare, small tracheas happen and are usually associated with severe clinical airway issues. Breeds to watch are Bulldogs and Bostons and to a lesser extent, Boxers. However, we have diagnosed this issue in Yorkies and Chihuahuas, as well. Passing out, exercise intolerance, and respiratory distress are all typical signs seen with an abnormally small trachea.
Hypoplastic Trachea Diagnosis
The diagnosis of Hypoplastic Trachea is usually done on an X-ray. The trachea should be at least two times the diameter of the third rib where the trachea crosses. Most cases have an obviously small trachea diameter, and this is easily diagnosed when seen. There is no good treatment option available as we cannot widen or replace the trachea.
Cleft Palate in Puppies and Kittens
This opening in the palate or roof of the mouth allows milk to enter the nose while nursing. Breeders often notice milk coming out of the baby’s nose while nursing. Some cleft palates in puppies and kittens are severe enough for milk to be aspirated into the lungs. So what causes a cleft palate in puppies? There are two main causes of cleft palate in kittens and puppies; genetics and drugs:
Genetic Causes of Puppies Born With Cleft Palate
Is cleft palate in puppies hereditary? The answer is yes, sometimes. A cleft palate can be caused by genetics. 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 in dogs has different modes of inheritance in different breeds. See your breed standards or call and we will help if you are seeing this issue.
In cats, Siamese cats are considered to have an increased risk of feline cleft palate, although it is seen in other breeds, as well.
Drug Causes of Canine Cleft Palate
The cleft closes between the 21st and 32nd day of gestation. Certain drugs given during this time can inhibit closing and cause a cleft palate. Known drugs that can cause a canine cleft palate are Primidone, Griseofulvin, Sulfa antibiotics, steroids (oral and topical) and Metronidazole. Be sure to use caution when treating a mom, especially until over 47 days pregnant!
Collapsed Trachea in Puppies and Kittens
Collapsed trachea in puppies is usually an issue with adult dogs rather than puppies. This issue usually develops later in life, and the small-to-tiny breed dogs are affected. The trachea collapses flat like a soft hose and vibrates when they cough. Dogs with a collapsed trachea honk or cough like a goose and repeat the honk many times in a row when excited. Cough tabs can help with this coughing.
What Causes Collapsed Trachea in Puppies and Kittens
We don’t know if this issue is genetic, but we always want to select away from collapsed trachea lines. 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 the kennel cough vaccine to puppies and kittens you are shipping to the next home. You want to avoid this issue if possible.
How to Treat Airway Abnormalities in Puppies and Kittens
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 the issue with drugs given to mom during pregnancy. If it doesn’t help the baby, we should not put it in a pregnant mom. Always make sure it is safe!
If you have more questions on respiratory issues in puppies and kittens, call us at 800.786.4751.
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Written by: Marty Greer, DVM
Director of Veterinary Services
Marty Greer, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has 40+ years’ experience in veterinary medicine, with special interests in canine reproduction and pediatrics. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1981. She’s served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2019. In 2023, Dr. Greer was named the Westminster Kennel Club Veterinarian of the Year.