Laryngeal paralysis in dogs is a progressive condition that prevents the larynx from opening and closing normally. Is your dog panting heavily or does he/she seem to cough and gag a lot? There’s nothing worse than seeing your dog struggle and not knowing what to do about it.
Dogs are a lot like us in many ways. They cough, they choke on food, and sometimes they get out of breath after heavy exercise. But how do you know the difference between benign health events versus a collection of signs that point to something more serious?
This post will help you understand the early signs of laryngeal paralysis in dogs, how it’s diagnosed and what is done to treat it.
Please do not use this information as medical advice. Always seek the advice of a licensed veterinarian.
What is Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
Laryngeal paralysis is a condition that progressively paralyzes the nerves that trigger the muscles responsible for normal larynx functionality. Non-functional muscles waste away (atrophy) over time.
Think of the larynx as a box that sits on top of the trachea (see the slide share image below). It consists of 3 large cartilages, 3 smaller cartilages, and a group of muscles that keep it opening and closing when required.
It’s those muscles that enable the larynx to keep food from being aspirated into the lungs. The larynx itself is also the voice box that enables sound and vocal communication.The cause of laryngeal paralysis in dogs isn’t entirely clear, although it’s thought that some conditions like hypothyroidism and Cushing’s Disease may play a role.
Breeds More Susceptible to Laryngeal Paralysis
Some large breed dogs like Siberian Huskies and Labrador Retrievers develop idiopathic laryngeal paralysis which means the cause is not known. That said, it’s thought that some hormonal conditions like hypothyroidism and Cushing’s Disease may also be triggers. Idiopathic laryngeal paralysis tends to occur in middle-aged to senior dogs.
Breeds with a Genetic Predisposition
Some dogs are born with a genetic predisposition (congenital) to the condition. These dogs tend to show signs earlier in life and have affected the following breeds:
- Bouvier de Flanders
- Siberian Huskies (can also show signs later in life unrelated to congenital defect)
- Blue Terriers
The important thing is to focus more on the signs of laryngeal paralysis rather than whether your breed is more or less likely to develop the condition.
Later in this post, you’ll see the top 5 signs of laryngeal paralysis in dogs. As you read through, remember that some of the signs noted could be related to another condition or underlying disease.
Always seek veterinarian care when something doesn’t seem quite right with your dog.
What Causes Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
The majority of cases have no known cause (idiopathic). This group of dogs tend to be middle-aged to seniors and affect Irish Setters and Labrador Retrievers. There are, however, underlying conditions like the ones noted below that may aggravate the condition (but not cause it).
It used to be thought that laryngeal paralysis was a condition on its own. Researchers, however, have reason to believe that the condition might actually be a more generalized neuromuscular disease. In simple terms, neuropathy occurs when nerves are damaged in the body. Damaged nerves lead to muscle atrophy which leads to weakness and full or partial paralysis.
The name given for this condition is known as Geriatric Onset Laryngeal Paralysis and Polyneuropathy.
Hypothyroidism in dogs (also known as Hashimoto’s Disease) occurs when the body treats the thyroid as if it doesn’t belong. As a result, the body tries to shut it down. As this happens, the thyroid slowly loses its ability to function. Thyroid hormones affect the whole body and can leave a dog with a host of problems including the following:
- thinning fur
- weight gain
- skin conditions
- droopy facial muscles
- Less common symptoms can include megaesophagus which causes regurgitation.
NOTE: The differences between megaesophagus and larynx paralysis are:
Megaesophagus tends to occur in miniature breeds. This condition is characterized by weakened cartilage in the trachea leading to difficulty swallowing and eating without assistance.
This involves the nerves that operate the muscles of the larynx. Instead of opening when it should, the larynx remains in a semi or fully closed position which affects the dog’s ability to breath, eat, and drink.
Injury to the throat caused by another animal or accident could trigger laryngeal paralysis in dogs.
Tumors that develop at the back of the throat or within the trachea and/or esophagus could trigger laryngeal paralysis.
Cushing’s disease happens when your dog’s body makes too much of a stress hormone called cortisol. For details about Cushing’s Disease and the effect it has on dogs, read: Cushing’s Disease in Dogs – Top 3 Questions
How Long Can Dogs Live With Laryngeal Paralysis?
A dog with severe laryngeal paralysis will suffocate because the airway becomes blocked and the dog cannot get enough oxygen into the body.
Laryngeal paralysis isn’t a condition that happens acutely overnight. Generally speaking, this condition develops over a span of years and typically begins when the dog is already in middle to senior years. Dogs with laryngeal paralysis must be treated, especially when/if the condition worsens over time.
Risk of death occurs when a dog isn’t treated and goes into respiratory distress. Remember that laryngeal paralysis is caused by a flap of cartilage that blocks the airway. The longer it stays like that, the harder it is for your dog to take a deep breath. In addition, there’s a risk of the dog aspirating food into the lungs. The result of this is a dangerous condition known as aspiration pneumonia.
Risks of Mild to Moderate Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
Even mild to moderate cases of this condition will limit a dog’s quality of life. There are a number of things that happen when the airway is partially or mildly obstructed.
Hypoxia in Dogs
Hypoxia occurs when a dog doesn’t get enough oxygen. Even if oxygen levels are only minimally reduced, your dog will suffer from a variety of symptoms over time that will greatly diminish his/her quality of life. Some signs of hypoxia include:
- behavioural change
- increased heart rate
- cyanosis (blue gums, etc.)
Risk of Severe Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
A dog with untreated severe respiratory distress will die. This is a medical emergency.
How Is Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs Diagnosed?
In order to diagnose this condition on dogs, the veterinarian has to be able to examine the larynx. To do this, the dog must be placed under enough sedation to tolerate throat examination. The dog cannot be over-sedated, however, because the veterinarian needs to see the full functioning of the larynx. The dog must be able to take some deep breaths in order for the veterinarian to see how well the larynx is functioning.
Endoscopic Threading to Diagnose Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
One way of visualizing the larynx involves sliding an endoscope (a lighted tube) down the dog’s nostril.
Chest radiographs (x-rays) cannot show whether the larynx is working properly, but they can show signs of aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia occurs when food particles are inhaled into the respiratory system and THIS could indicate that the larynx may not be working properly.
CT scans (computed tomography) provides cross-sectional images that may show signs that the larynx is not opening properly when the dog tries to breath in.
Complete blood workup can pinpoint underlying conditions that may trigger laryngeal paralysis. For example, metabolic diseases (hypothyroidism, for example), myopathies (disease of muscle tissue), endocrine diseases (Cushing’s) or infections can be detected through blood work.
Urinalysis often goes hand-in-hand with blood work and is mainly used to assess the health of the kidneys. It can also help determine how other organs are functioning and is used to check for metabolic conditions like diabetes, for example.
What Does Surgery for Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs Involve?
There are a few techniques that can be used to manage this condition, but the most commonly used is a “tie-back” technique. This technique requires anesthesia and a 3 to 4 inch cut on one side of the neck. The surgeon uses heavy stitches to keep some of the larynx folds from collapsing back into the trachea.
It’s important to note that dogs with mild laryngeal paralysis may get by with conservative, at-home, care involving exercise moderation, weight loss, and anti-inflammatory medication.
Is Surgery Risky?
The safety of surgery in dogs depends on a number of things including any underlying conditions the dog may have and his/her age. Risks should be discussed with the surgeon ahead of time.
Is Surgery a Cure for Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs/
Surgery does not solve the problem, but it can greatly improve the dog’s quality of life. In severe case, surgery can save a dog’s life.
What Are the 5 EASILY MISSED Signs of Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs?
Early signs of laryngeal paralysis are often dismissed as normal signs of aging. There are, however, distinct things to watch for including the following 5 signs:
#1. Heavy Panting
Panting is a normal way for dogs to cool down. With a condition like laryngeal paralysis, however, the dog may actually be trying to take in oxygen. This type of panting is quick, harsh, and unusual. Your dog may appear distressed with bulging eyes. He/she will obviously be trying to take in more breath than the body will allow.
If your dog cannot pant properly (in other words, cannot expel heat), he/she is likely to overheat quickly.
Coughing in dogs can be a sign of a number of things from kennel cough to cancer. However, if your dog only seems to cough when trying to eat or drink, it could be because of a problem in the throat or larynx. This is generally described as a soft “ineffectual” cough.
#3. Loss of Energy/Exercise Intolerance
On its own, loss of energy or inability to tolerate exercise can be caused by a number of things. Obesity and underlying conditions can cause lethargy. It’s important to note that a sudden and consistent lack of energy should be investigated by a licensed veterinarian. In fact, any unusual signs and symptoms in your dog should be assessed.
Dogs with laryngeal paralysis will have difficulty eating properly and may not be getting the right amount of oxygen to the tissues. As a result, he/she will begin to experience loss of energy and/or exercise intolerance.
#4. Noisy Breathing
Noisy breathing in dogs with laryngeal paralysis is also known as inspiratory stridor. As your dog breaths in, the flap of cartilage in the larynx that would normally pull back to open the throat instead collapses inward. It’s a little like trying to suck air in through the flap of a balloon.
Anxiety is a normal reaction when the body cannot get enough breath. If your dog is having any trouble breathing, he/she will visibly appear distressed. Anxiety, in this case, is the natural byproduct of the body fighting to survive. When a dog gets to this critical phase, he/she will need emergency attention. In this case, a veterinarian will need to open the airway asap.
Trust Your Instincts
At the end of the day, you know your dog better than anybody. If you’re like me, you may tend to over-worry, but it’s probably fair to say that veterinarians would rather see you over-concerned than not concerned enough.
Any situation that affects your dog’s ability to eat, drink, or breath is a serious event that needs medical attention.
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