Dogs tend to pant a great deal. Because they don't sweat the way humans do, panting is their way of cooling down when they are overheated, in a particularly warm climate, after exerting themselves. This is not, however, the only reason why dogs pant.
Panting is also an important way for dogs to oxygenate their blood. Their bodies, like ours, have many complex feedback mechanisms, and a significant number of them result in an increase in respiratory rate (what we call panting). In other words, your dog's panting may be a normal response to an unusual and possibly abnormal condition. Assuming that the panting you're noticing is excessive, the first thing to do is try to explain it.
What to Look For
This is a simple one. Think for a moment about your dog's environment and what she's been doing lately.
What to Do
Next, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the ambient temperature high and/or has your dog been exerting herself more than usual? If so, the panting should subside in a few minutes provided the dog is kept cool and calm.
- Has your dog eaten or drank an unusual food or liquid or an unusually large amount recently? If either is the case, your dog may be overfull to the point of discomfort, or on the verge of vomiting. Be ready to clean up a mess!
- Has your dog been out of your sight for any period of time recently? If so, your dog may have sustained an injury. Check your dog's entire body for signs of pain or injury. Any kind of pain or significant discomfort is reason enough for a dog to pant excessively. Relieve the pain, and the panting should stop.
- Is your dog being treated for any ongoing illness? Many chronic illnesses - such as Cushing's disease, chronic renal failure, and congestive heart failure - can cause panting either directly or by inducing electrolyte imbalances, which then, in turn, cause increased respiratory rate. This is an issue best addressed by your veterinarian.
- Is your dog taking any medication? A variety of medications can cause panting (especially prednisone). Ask your vet whether the medication your dog is taking might be responsible.
When to Get the Vet
While normal panting serves a useful function, abnormally excessive panting is often a sign of serious problems. Brachycephalic breeds -- such as bulldogs, pugs, and Boston terriers - have particular difficulty recovering from heat-related exhaustion because of their physical structure. (These dogs are distinguished by their protruding exposed eyes, extremely short pushed-in noses, and small nostrils.) Don't ignore these dogs' panting if it lasts for more than ten minutes at rest in a cool environment. Think about it. Have you ever needed more than ten minutes to catch your breath, even after strenuous exercise?
If your dog's panting doesn't subside in a few minutes, move on to a more thorough evaluation of the dog. Start by checking her mucous membranes. If the normally pink, moist tissues of the mouth and tongue are turning bluish purple (hypoxia) or are ghostly pale (shock), get your dog to an emergency facility immediately!
Does your dog have a fever? Sometimes a body temperature of higher than 102.5°F will cause a dog to pant in an attempt to reduce its fever. See “How to Check Your Dog's Temperature” [not available online] for instructions on taking your dog's temperature. If your panting dog has such a temperature elevation and isn't simply overheated, it may be due to infection. See your veterinarian right away.