Why Do Dogs Pant?
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM February 09, 2020
One of the hallmarks of hot weather is panting dogs. But have you ever noticed that some dogs seem to be panting all of the time; in the heat, when it’s cold, when they’re tired, or even when at rest. Panting is a mechanism that dogs use to cool themselves, but it also an important indicator that other things may be happening in their body or their surroundings. Understanding your dog will help you determine what is causing their panting to hopefully slow it down. Let’s look at panting in dogs in a little more depth.
Why Do Dogs Pant?
Dogs pant for a number of reasons, with cooling their body as the main one. However, pain, discomfort, anxiety, fear, or even illness can make a dog pant as well. Knowing your dog and how they will react to certain things will give you an idea of why they might be panting.
The Anatomy and Physiology of Panting
To fully understand why your dog may be panting, you need to first learn what exactly goes on when a dog pants. The scientific definition from the Journal of Applied Physiology defines panting as ‘a controlled increase in respiratory frequency accompanied by a decrease in tidal volume…to increase ventilation of the upper respiratory tract…and thereby elevate evaporative heat loss.’ Whew! To make the definition a little easier to digest in layman’s terms, panting can be defined as when your dog’s breathing rate increases, while the size of each breath decreases in order to move more cool air from the outside through the body, leading to more evaporation and more cooling.
When dogs pant, they draw small, frequent breaths of air from the environment, which is usually cooler than their body temperature, into their upper airways, not deep down into the lungs. This allows the air to move quickly in, exchanging oxygen into the bloodstream, and then moving back out. As the air passes back out through the mouth and nose, it evaporates moisture off the tongue, nasal passages, and other surrounding tissues causing cooling similar to what we humans experience when sweating. It also helps to quickly oxygenate blood, usually in response to a release of adrenaline or cortisol (think the fight or flight response).
When Do Dogs Pant?
For some of our canine companions, it may seem like panting is constant, except during sleep. While that’s probably a slight exaggeration, some dogs definitely pant more than others, similar to how some humans blow more hot air than others. Anyway, here are some common reasons that a pup may pant.
- They’re hot
Panting is a necessary way to help cool dogs down since they lack sweat glands on their body. Since panting is a less efficient form of cooling compared to sweating, dogs are more susceptible to getting a heat stroke when the outside temperature is overly hot or during times of excessive exercise. For some dogs, a slight rise in environmental temperature will cause them to pant whereas others can withstand a more substantial increase. Just like humans, every dog has their own temperature comfort zone.
Along with a rise in body temperature that comes with exercise, there is also an increased oxygen demand from the muscles. Panting helps to cool a working body and bring in more oxygen into the bloodstream to feed tired muscles.
With stress, anxiety, and even fear the body releases stress hormones, like cortisol. The response to these stress hormones is sort of an all hands-on-deck approach where the body increases blood flow to the muscles and brain along with decreases in blood flow to the unnecessary at the moment organs, such as the stomach. This is the body’s way of getting ready to run, fight, or who knows what. The increased blood flow causes an increased need for oxygen, which may be a reason that dogs pant when faced with stress or fear. Car rides, fireworks, and strangers, among other things, can all elicit this response.
Pain or discomfort can also lead to panting in a similar fashion that stress and fear does. This pain can either be acute (sudden) or chronic and change with your dog’s position or activity level.
Fever, pain, or respiratory issues can all lead to panting. It can occur as a cooling mechanism, a stress response, or due to difficulty in breathing. It’s important to recognize the difference between panting and labored breathing. Labored breathing usually involves the whole body where a dog may use their stomach muscles to breathe just as much as they use their chest. There may also be rattles, rasps, or gurgles associated with labored breathing, and generally a dog will appear pretty stressed as they try to take a breath.
Do Other Animals Besides Dogs Pant?
While dogs may be the poster-children for panting, they are far from the only critters that do it. With all of the reasons that a dog may pant, it would make sense that other animals would have the same reasons too. As a matter of fact, they do. Many animals pant, in fact most mammals do. Cats, cows, mice all pant to cool down. Birds pant as well. And yes, humans definitely pant.
When Is Panting A Sign Of A Problem?
The majority of the time your dog will pant because of hot weather, exercise, or excitement. But if your pup’s panting is sudden, unexplainable, and accompanied by other signs, then your dog may have a problem.
Panting is a problem if it’s caused by pain, illness, heat stroke, or even fear and anxiety. Let’s go over some of these signs of concern.
Dogs in pain appear uncomfortable. They may stand up, then lie down, then stand up, just to lie down again and shift their weight uncomfortably. They may also appear panicked and be favoring the part of their body that hurts. Painful dogs may be reluctant to come to you, eat, or even move. Again, pain can be acute or chronic. Dogs that are uncomfortable enough to be panting should see a veterinarian.
Panting from a fever or illness usually comes with other signs of illness, such as vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, not eating, or lethargy. Fevers and other illnesses should be seen by a veterinarian.
- Heat stroke
Heat stroke is a very severe condition where the body temperature exceeds 103℉. Heat stroke usually occurs following overexertion or when environmental temperatures are extremely high. Dogs suffering from heat stroke may tremble and stagger. Heat stroke is a very serious condition that requires immediate veterinary attention.
- Fear or anxiety
A fearful dog may bark, startle easily, and bite or nip when being handled. They may also drool, tremble, or sit still. Most of the time you’ll be able to recognize the situations that causes your pup fear. If your dog is overly anxious in any and all situations, try to avoid known fearful situations in the future.
What To Do If Panting Is A Problem?
Don’t assume that any panting that your dog is doing is okay. It’s important to recognize why your dog is panting and do your best remedy the situation. For example, if it’s hot outside, make sure that your pup has plenty of shade and fresh water or keep them inside where it’s cooler. Don’t exercise them when it’s overly hot. If your pup still manages to get too hot or tired, try to calm and cool them. Give them a dark, quiet, cool place to escape or give them a bath in cool water.
For dogs that are fearful or anxious, try to avoid their triggers. Take a trip out of town on the 4th of July to avoid fireworks or invest in an anxiety vest or other calming mechanisms for thunderstorms. If stranger danger is a problem, give your pup a safe spot, like their crate, to go when company comes over or during the mailman’s daily visits. Your veterinarian can also help you with these issues by providing some behavioral training techniques or in severe cases, medication to help calm your dog’s nerves.
Pain and illness panting should be seen by your veterinarian. They will examine and perform diagnostics as needed to determine the cause of the discomfort and then treat it. Chronic pain or illness may be more difficult to manage, so it’s important to have a strong working relationship with your veterinarian.
Dogs and panting, panting and dogs; the two words seem to go hand in hand. While most panting is a normal response to heat or exercise, sometimes panting can be a sign of a more serious problem. Knowing your dog and how they normally act is important in determining the cause of their panting.
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