“He’s been panting a lot, Doc. Is that normal?”
Oh boy, that’s never an easy question to answer. After asking the client lots of questions, observing the dog and doing a thorough physical exam, we might be on the track of finding out if the pooch’s panting is normal or abnormal.
A few clients make an appointment just to address the dog’s panting.
Most of the time, however, a client’s comment about panting comes up as an afterthought: “By the way, check out his panting. I think it’s more than usual.”
Questions for the Human
When I ask the client if Hobart pants like this all the time, the answer is usually no: “He’s only panting now because he’s here.” Well, that’s good, I guess.
When I look at the non-panting dog who looks cool, calm and collected, I need to see if their person can be more specific and answer questions such as:
- What does the panting look like?
- How long does it last?
- Does the dog seem in distress when they pant?
- Can you link it to specific circumstances?
- Has it increased much in the last few months?
- Are there any other behavioral/metabolic changes you’ve noticed that coincide with the panting (e.g., increased thirst, anxiety)?
These are not always easy questions to answer, even for an observant person. First, we need to be on the same page about what true panting or normal panting looks like.
- Rapid rate of in/out respirations
- Lips are pulled back when dog takes air in and nose quivers when air goes out
- Rib cage doesn’t move much
- Tongue is sticking out a bit
- Maybe some excess drool
True panting can be normal with:
- Exertion: Even a dog in physically fit shape can pant after exercise. The panting should resolve on its own in a short period of time. A dog who is unfit may pant with very little exertion. As long as the dog still recovers quickly, this may be a case of being unfit rather than being sick or having a serious underlying disease.
- Heat: Different dogs have very different responses to heat. The breed, age, type of coat and body condition all dictate how a dog tolerates increased heat. When I suggest that transient panting may be due to the 90 degree weather, an observant client will tell me whether or not the dog has continued to pant in air conditioning and whether or not the dog was panting when it was 60 degrees out.
- Stress: This can be harder for some people to assess. Many dogs will exhibit panting when stressed. A dog may develop new anxieties or new behavioral disorders undetected by the human. Of course, thunderstorm anxiety is a classic case of panting due to stress.
- Excitement: Do you get home from work and your dog immediately goes into a panting session? Or does Chico the Chihuahua see another dog walking down the block and begin to pant like a cartoon character? As long as the panting subsides when the crazy canine excitement is over, this is normal.
The Physical Exam
Now it’s my turn to look at my patient and see if the physical exam can point us in a direction of normal vs. abnormal panting.
Age and Body Condition Matter
Increased age and poor body condition are big causes of increased panting. Most geriatric patients will pant a bit more than younger dogs. It’s simply harder for them to do what they could do when they were younger. On top of age, if that older dog (or any dog) has arthritis, pain or is obese, panting can increase.
In the obese patient, panting may still come from the normal list above like exertion, heat, etc., but the panting is more severe and long-lasting — and the dog can look a bit distressed.
People aren’t usually aware that their dog has gained an additional 10–20% of body weight in the last year and may be developing other age-related conditions, like some arthritis or anxiety.
So while there may not be a true disease or respiratory or metabolic condition causing the panting, age, pain, discomfort and obesity are conditions that should be addressed. If medical conditions are ruled out, lifestyle changes are important, even though clients often don’t want to hear it.
Learn a little more about panting in dogs from this vet:
The physical exam certainly points me in the direction of deciding if the panting is due to an underlying condition. Basic blood work, urinalysis and X-rays will be advised if the panting is excessive or abnormal.
The results of these tests and the history usually give us our answer.
Here’s a brief list of the most common causes of excessive panting:
- Pain: The pain can be from arthritis, other muscle/skeletal pain, abdominal or other painful conditions. The panting is a response, and the cause of the pain must be discovered and addressed.
- Behaviors: A dog suffering from a true anxiety disorder like separation anxiety or canine cognitive dysfunction may pant excessively. Addressing the disorder with behavior modification and drug therapy are necessary to alleviating the panting.
- Drugs: Some drugs cause excessive panting, and the client may not realize it. Steroids, too much thyroid medication, benzodiazepines, opioids and other drugs can cause panting in some dogs.
- Metabolic disorders: Renal failure, hypertension, Cushing’s disease, diabetic ketoacidosis and more can all cause excessive panting.
Finding out if a dog’s panting is normal or abnormal is not such a simple task. But a good history, a physical, lab tests, radiographs and an attentive client usually lead us to an answer.
- Allen, Julie. Panting. Clinician’s Brief, April 2016.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed June 27, 2018.