Tracheal collapse is a common cause of airway obstruction in dogs. The trachea, or “windpipe,” is a tube made up of sturdy rings of cartilage through which air is transported to and from the lungs. Sometimes, however, the tracheal rings begin to collapse, and as air is squeezed through, a characteristic honking cough results.
Why tracheal collapse occurs is unknown, although a congenital abnormality, in which the cartilage of the tracheal rings is less cellular and therefore weaker than normal, is suspected.
Tracheal collapse occurs most frequently in middle-aged to senior (4-14 years) dogs, but sometimes occurs in younger dogs.
What Are the Clinical Signs of Tracheal Collapse?
The most common clinical sign is a persistent, dry, harsh cough. It is sometimes described as a ‘goose honk’ cough. The cough may worsen at night, with excitement, with pressure on the trachea – such as from a collar, during hot or humid weather, or immediately after eating or drinking.
How Is Tracheal Collapse Diagnosed And Treated?
During a physical exam, very light pressure placed on the trachea that causes coughing or breathing difficulty may raise suspicion of tracheal collapse. Tests such as radiography (X-rays) or use of an endoscope or bronchoscope are needed to confirm the diagnosis.
Collapsing trachea can be treated medically, surgically, or by a combination of the two. Most cases of tracheal collapse are treated with cough suppressants, bronchodilators, corticosteroids (to control inflammation), and/or antibiotics. In obese patients, weight loss helps decrease respiratory effort. Although treatment is not curative, a study released in 1994 showed that 71 percent of dogs treated medically showed a good long-term response.
If medical management produces no response in two weeks, or if severe signs compromise the pet’s functionality, surgery is recommended. Various surgical techniques have been described, but the application of prosthetic polypropylene rings to the outside of the trachea is the current treatment of choice, with an overall success rate reported to be in the 75- to 85-percent range. In general, the outcome of surgery is poorer for dogs older than six years. It is a tricky, specialized surgery that is best performed by a skilled surgeon, usually at a referral center.
What Else Can Pet Guardians Do If Their Dog Has a Collapsed Trachea?
Whether medical or surgical treatment is chosen, pet owners can help relieve signs by keeping their pet’s weight down (even slightly under is ideal), switching from a collar to a chest harness, and avoiding respiratory irritants.