Tracheal Collapse in Dogs

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on September 05, 2023
4 min read

The trachea is a flexible tube with sturdy c-shaped rings of cartilage. These cartilages keep the trachea open for air to get in and out of the lungs. Tracheal collapse is a progressive respiratory condition that occurs when these tracheal rings of cartilage collapse. It can cause your dog to have breathing problems as the windpipe collapses. This can result in a harsh dry cough.

In most cases the cause of tracheal collapse in dogs is unknown. However, it may be a congenital disorder. As a condition that your dog was born with, their trachea may collapse due to their not having enough cellular rings of cartilage. 

If their trachea begins to collapse, you may notice your dog producing a honking cough. This happens as the air pushes through the collapsing rings of cartilage.

In addition to a honking cough, there are other signs that could indicate tracheal collapse. Some of them include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing when you pick your dog up or apply pressure to their neck
  • Vomiting, gagging, or retching associated with the coughing
  • Cyanotic (turning blue) episodes or bluish mucous membranes
  • Wheezing

The cough caused by tracheal collapse is usually non-productive (no phlegm) and is not accompanied by fever. Activities like drinking water, exercising, excitement, and excessively high or low temperatures may trigger respiratory distress. 

A dog with tracheal collapse will experience bouts of respiratory distress. These episodes can be violent and last a few minutes until they resolve themselves. Obesity and humid weather are other factors that could bring out the signs of tracheal collapse in your dog.

Which dogs are prone to tracheal collapse? Some dogs are more prone to tracheal collapse than others. The genetic condition mainly affects small dog breeds. These include:

  • Pomeranians 
  • Miniature and Toy Poodles 
  • Yorkshire Terriers 
  • Chihuahuas
  • Pugs 

Age is also a factor. Tracheal collapse mostly occurs in middle-aged dogs.

Tracheal collapse is classified into four grades:

  • Grade 1: The important cells that form the tracheal lumen, a structure that supports your dog's trachea, are reduced by approximately 25%, but the cartilage is still normal shaped.
  • Grade 2: The tracheal lumen is reduced by approximately 50% and the cartilage is partially flattened.
  • Grade 3: The tracheal lumen is reduced by approximately 75% and the cartilage is nearly completely flat.
  • Grade 4: The tracheal lumen is totally collapsed and the cartilage is flat.

Consult with your vet if you notice your dog showing any of the symptoms of tracheal collapse. 

Making a diagnosis of tracheal collapse. Your vet will take a thorough history and do a physical examination to determine what is wrong with your dog. Based on their findings and what you tell them, the vet will make a diagnosis and determine the best treatment.

Your vet may have to do some tests before making a diagnosis of the condition. Some of these tests include:

  • Chest X-ray: This is used to rule out other conditions and discover whether the collapse is closer to the throat or within the chest.
  • Tracheoscopy or bronchoscopy: Usually performed in a clinic or a specialty hospital as it requires general anesthesia, here an instrument with a camera is inserted into the trachea to examine it.
  • Fluoroscopy: This is X-ray imaging that creates real-time moving images as your dog breathes. 
  • Other tests: These could be blood tests, a check-up that includes urinalysis, blood count, chemistry panel, and/or heartworm testing to check for conditions that may cause coughing.

Other methods like radiographic imaging can be used, but these might not be enough to diagnose tracheal collapse on their own. For instance, chest X-rays do not always reveal tracheal collapse.

Most dogs with tracheal collapse can be treated with medications and preventative care, such as weight loss, using a harness for walks, and avoiding airway irritants. Once the vet makes a diagnosis, they may prescribe medication to manage coughing and inflammation. 

For mild to moderate cases, your veterinarian may prescribe one or more of the following medications:

  • Antibiotics 
  • Cough suppressants
  • Steroids (oral and inhalant using an aero dawg device)
  • Bronchodilators
  • Sedatives

The vet may use sedatives to reduce coughing and anxiety. Some dogs may require heavy sedation to stop the cough cycle. Coughing only increases irritation, which then leads to more coughing. 

Your vet may mention Maropitant (Cerenia®) as a drug of preference to decrease inflammation in the airways.

Keep your dog away from airway irritants like smoke and other pollutants. Switching from a collar to a chest harness may also help to ease your dog's breathing ability. 

If your dog is obese, weight loss may help reduce your dog's respiratory effort. This will help in managing some of the symptoms of the condition.

If the symptoms are so severe that they affect your dog's basic functionality, your vet may recommend surgery. This surgery should be conducted by an American College of Veterinary Surgeons board-certified veterinary surgeon. In it, extraluminal tracheal rings or intraluminal stents are surgically placed around the dog’s trachea to keep it from collapsing.

Remember to give a lot of care to your dog if they suffer from this condition. Keeping your dog away from smoke and other pollutants will go a long way toward reducing and preventing breathing problems.