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

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