Living with a dog with a collapsing trachea

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Tomorrow we have a vet appointment for our 14 year old Chinese Crested, AJ. A vet appointment that I’ve been dreading. No, it isn’t THE vet appointment quite yet but still every vet appointment for a senior dog can be life changing.

You see AJ has a long , beautiful, slender neck and inside that neck is a tender, fragile, flexible tube called the trachea. The trachea or wind pipes job is to transport air into the lungs and carry air out during the exhale of CO2 during respiration. Unfortunately, our Chinese Crested, AJ’s has what is referred to as a collapsing trachea for most of his life and his symptoms suggest it is getting worse. 

A collapsing trachea is not an immediate death sentence but it is definitely a condition that you want to be aware of early because there are thing you can do in order preserve your dogs air way for as long as possible. Let me share with you some insights.

What is a collapsing trachea?

A collapsing trachea is a disorder of the airway where the cartilage rings, muscle, and ligament of the trachea starts to flatten in shape eventually obstructing the airway.

The trachea structure can be likened to that of a vacuum hose. . The trachea has soft tissue supported by ridged rings of cartilage to help keep the air way open. When the trachea rings start to lose their shape and flatten or collapse that is when you will start to see the first symptoms.

There are four grades or level of collapsing trachea you may hear your vet refer to: 

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.

Although I have never had the vet refer to AJ’s collapse in regards to these grades, based on the xray, I would assume it is at least a Grade 3

Symptoms of the condition

So how did I start to suspect that AJ was suffering from a collapsing trachea? 

AJ has had many of the symptoms of collapsing trachea since he was just a young adult dog. It started with his coughing and honking when he would reach the end of the leash when pulling on walks. He is just that dog that always wanted to be out front, listening for the chipmunks chirping away their warning calls. Mistake #1 we used a collar on AJ for probably the first 7 years of his life. That is a lot of years for continued stress on the neck. 

We tried many, many different harnesses but we never found one that completely removed enough pressure from his neck and chest to help alleviate the coughing. Our favorite however is the Ruff Wear Web Master. It still allows freedom of the shoulders and front leg range of motion while also helping to distribute some of “the pull” to the dogs core rather than specifically on the neck. Again no harness has proved to be perfect but this one was the best one we found for our AJ. 

There are other symptoms to always be watchful of especially if you have have a dog that is considered to be in the toy group. Many of these symptoms could be present for additional reasons so it is important to consult with your vet to investigate if there are abnormalities with the trachea:

  • Abnormal breathing sounds which can include snoring
  • Difficulty or rapid breathing
  • Reduced or low energy
  • Gagging or vomiting when ingesting water or food
  • Fainting or unconsciousness with exertion

What you should do if you suspect your dog has a collapsed trachea

First try and identify any or all of the irritants. Management is key so you can avoid more agitation. If they cough after drinking and eating what can you do to change their posture when they eat? Do raised dog bowls reduce or alleviate the symptom? Or start walking your dog using a harness rather than a collar. 

AJ coughs specifically after drinking water so we are trying different water dispensers. One is a bowl with a float in it that only allows a small puddle of water to be available to drink so that there is less splashing of water up on his nose. A second devise we are trying is a suspended water bottle with a spigot that he can drink from similar to a hamster water bottle. 

Next, it is really important to carefully observe your dog’s “normal” and document your observation so you will not forget any finite details: what was the symptom, what is the context of the event or what happened before and after, and describe the symptoms as thoroughly as possible including duration. 

Finally, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Guide the conversation using all the great documentation you did or even better yet a video of your dogs symptoms. 

There are a few ways your veterinarian can confirm a diagnosis. The least expensive and lowest risk to your dog would be an xray. Here is AJ’s xray and you can clearly see the area of the collapse within the chest. 

Fluoroscopy, or a moving xray can be very useful to see how your dog is cycling through its breath but this procedure may not be readily available at your local vet. You will have to do your research to find the nearest vet hospital equipped with this special technology. 

And lastly a bronchoscopy, or inserting a tube with a camera on it down your dogs windpipe can also be utilized. This procedure comes with more risk and cost due to the sedation that is necessary. And it might only be medically necessary if you are considering surgery to correct the problem or if a possible mass is suspected. 

One word of advice…. don’t give up!

I suspected a collapsing trachea earlier in AJ life but our veterinarian did not agree to do any diagnosing. Would that have changed preventive measure that I took? Possibly! Why wait until the symptoms are too progressed to know all your options. I was very frustrated but that is for another blog post. They are no longer our vetrinarian.

In the long run a collapsing trachea can make your dog more susceptible to allergies and infections in their lungs, as well as pneumonia. Next we’ll cover a few ways we can help our pups feel and breath better. 

9 Ways to help alleviate some of the symptoms caused collapsing trachea

While there is no cure for this debilitating condition, there are some things that you can do to reduce the irritation to the trachea if collapsing is suspected or diagnosed. 

Weight Control

This is rather a no brainer. Keeping your dog at an ideal weight benefits their entire body. Food does not equal love. Remove those rose colored glasses and choose to honestly evaluate your dogs current body condition scoring. There is an epidemic of obesity in dogs. Don’t be part of the problem, choose to be part of the solution.

Reducing household irritants

Try to keep their environment as free from the following as much as possible: artificial scents, harsh cleaning supplies, smoke, or dust. 

I am no 5 star home maker and lets be honest keeping up with dusting can be a real challenge. Pay close attention to the places your dog spends the most time. Keep their favorite place to sleep clean and free from dirt. Clean their feeding and watering bowls daily, change the furnace or house ventilation system filter frequently, and another option would be to invest in an air purifier. 

Fresh drinking water

Almost make sure fresh water is available for your dog to drink. AND observe how your dog drinks. I already touched on this when I was talking about some of the things we are doing to manage AJ’s symptoms. 

The structure of AJ’s mouth and tongue are abnormal. His tongue normally hangs outside the mouth on the right side. He still tries to drink normally by curling the tongue and lapping up water but he ends up splashing a lot of water up onto his nostrils and it enters into his air way. Not only is fresh water important but also how the water is consumed by your dog. 

Use a harness rather than a collar

This should also should be a no brainer and something we touched on a little previously in this post. We want to reduce the physical stress on the neck and chest as much as possible while still allowing free range of movement of the front limbs. 

Don’t trade one problem for another. Many of the harness with wide straps across the chest could possibly cause less coughing but you’ll trade gate abnormalities to the list of health issues if you are not careful. 

This can be some trial an error depending on how much your dog normally pulls and your dogs anatomy. It can be a small investment with big benefits.

Train for loose leash walking

Along with finding a harness that doesn’t make your dog cough, you should also take some time to train some loose leash walking. To be honest it is just a good thing to train any dog. 

If you have never heard the term it bascially means your dogs is trained to walk with you, keeping the appropriate pace and position so there is no tension in the leash. 

I’m not recommending your dogs is ONLY allowed to walk at your side. Walks are for your dog enjoyment too and they should be allowed to do a lot of sniffing and exploring of the world on a walk. 

Supplements to their diet

In traditional Chinese Medicine like cures likeSo if your dog has a suspected or confirmed trachea issue you should add sources of cartilage and even trachea to your dogs diet. 

Cartilage builder suppliments that you could included in your dogs diet are: glucosomine, parna or green lipid muscles, CMO, chondrotin, MSM, and egg shell membrane. Please make sure you do your homework in finding the safest products on the market for your dog. Not all products are made the same, natural vs. synthetic, could be different concentration and level of purity. 

Avoid high-intensity exercise or stress

It’s also important to avoid any high-intensity exercise or stressors for your dog to reduce the likelihood of coughing. Keep in mind also that exercise is not the only reason your dogs respiration can increase. Stress can causing an increase in respiration as well as panting from the heat. 

Use of herbs or pharmaceutics

Cough suppressant. Anti-inflammatory. Bronchodilator, oh my!

After confirming the diagnosis there may be a need for a cough suppressant, bronchodilator, or anti-inflamatories to help reduce the spasms that can start once the coughing begins. Aids to help with these three things can come in the form of pharmaceuticals or herbal tinctures. Work with an experienced vetrinarian or herbalist in choosing the best options for your dog and their disease state.

I personally will “go to” herbs first everyday, all day. We’ve had way too many bad situation made worse because of a reaction to a pharmaceutical. I’m not saying that your dog can not have a negative reaction to a herb, herb are powerful in their own right, but it is far easier to start with a low dose of an herbal formula to see if it is effective and safe to continue using. 

A few cough suppressants to discuss with a vet or herbalist would be: tincture of slippery elm tea, licorice root, mullein root, wild cherry bark tea, and organic honey.

Stents or surgery

Although the use of stents or other surgical procedures could be an option for your dog I would proceed with caution. You need to ask yourself if though we CAN….SHOULD we. Does the risk of complications outweigh the potential benefit of the procedure. Do extensive research and if this is something you are still considering make sure you work with a veterinarian who is experienced with the procedure and after care. 

In conclusion I hope you gleamed some useful information into living life with a dog that has a collapsing trachea. Early detection and managing your dogs lifestyle is key. Our AJ is still a happy dog and we want to do everything possible to make to make him comfortable in his later stages of the disorder. 



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