Breathing problems are quite common in pets
LIKE most people, I have witnessed someone collapsing, with immediate first aid being needed. The situations that I have seen have been caused by harmless problems like a faint, but at the time, it’s too soon to make that immediate judgement. In such crises, my brain defaults to that most basic first aid acronym: ABC: Airway, Breathing, Circulation.
If a person’s airway is clear, they are breathing regularly, and they have a healthy pink colour (meaning that their circulation is working well), then they are not having an immediate life threatening crisis. Airway and breathing are the easiest to check: is the chest is moving, with air moving in and out of the mouth or nose?
When it comes to diseases affecting breathing, there are two sections: upper airways and lungs.
The upper airways are the tubes that carry air from the atmosphere into the lungs. Air enters the body via the nostrils and mouth, passing through the back of the throat and the voice box, then down the windpipe into the lungs. Airway problems generally refer to obstruction of these passages. This can be caused by innate problems from within the animal (such a windpipe or nostrils that are too narrow for the free flow of air) or they can be due to external causes (e.g. if a dog inhales a foreign object such as a stone).
Once the air has travelled through the upper airways, the lungs are the next destination. These have a sponge-like structure: as air circulates inside them, oxygen diffuses into the blood, and carbon dioxide and other waste passes out into the air. Regular breathing is an essential part of this process, so that fresh oxygen is continually drawn into the lungs, and the waste gases are continually moved out.
Breathing is an automatic process that happens without even thinking about it. You can consciously alter your breathing, taking deep breaths, shallow breaths, or even holding your breath, but you cannot consciously stop breathing completely. After a minute or two, the automatic systems in your body over-rule your will, and you find yourself gasping for breath.
Breathing is made possible by movements of your diaphragm, the circular sheet of flat muscle that separates your abdomen from your chest. When you breath in, the diaphragm moves downwards, creating a vacuum in your chest, which causes air to be sucked into the lungs. When you breathe out, the diaphragm moves upwards, compressing your lungs and forcing air out through the windpipe. The diaphragm is assisted by the muscles of your chest wall: your ribs move up and out when you breathe in, and inwards and downwards when you breathe out.
When a vet is presented with a patient that has abnormal breathing, the first step is to stand back to observe the breathing carefully. Much can be learned from watch- ing a patient before even going near them. Different diseases tend to cause specific types of abnormal breathing.
Tilly the tabby cat was brought to see me because her breathing suddenly looked “strange”. Her sides were heaving in a much more pronounced way than normal. I could tell at once that she was displaying “abdominal breathing” - in other words, her abdomen was moving in and out as she breathed, as well as her chest. An x ray confirmed the condition that I suspected: she had suffered a ruptured diaphragm, probably after being hit by a car. She needed an urgent operation to repair the tear in her diaphragm, so that she could start to breath normally again.
Roxy, a black cat, had a different type of problem: he was breathing much more rapidly than normal. Again, an x-ray solved the mystery: an infection had caused fluid to gather around his lungs, stopping them from expanding properly and forcing him to take rapid, shallow breaths. Treatment involved draining off the fluid with a needle and syringe, then using antibiotics to control the infection.
Puggly, a Pug dog, had noisy breathing caused by the flattened nose and narrowed nostrils that are typical of his breed. He had occasional collapsing episodes (like fainting) when he became excited, because his breathing passages were too narrow to allow air to rush into his lungs in large enough quantities. He needed a tracheostomy, with an artificial hole being surgically created in his windpipe so that his squashed up nose was bypassed. The surgery was successful: he stopped collapsing, and his breathing became almost silent.
Max the cat also had noisy breathing, and he had started to sneeze as well. In his case, the reason was obvious when I examined him closely. A piece of green vegetation was visible, emerging from his left nostril. When I took hold of this with forceps and pulled, I extracted a three-inch blade of grass which had been clogging up his nose. His breathing returned to normal as soon as this was removed.
There are many reasons for difficulty breathing: each case needs to be properly assessed by a vet. Normal, comfortable breathing is something we shouldn’t take for granted. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and as you breathe out, say to yourself: isn’t breathing wonderful?
A piece of grass stuck in his nose caused problems for Max