What Happens When Your Dog's Windpipe Collapses?

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Tracheal collapse is exactly what it sounds like: a condition in which a dog’s trachea, or “windpipe,” collapses and causes airway obstruction and breathing problems.

The trachea is a tube made up of many rings of cartilage; these rings hold the trachea open, enabling it to transport air to and from the lungs. The result is a very noticeable, “honking” cough.

Causes, Signs, and Symptoms
The cause of tracheal collapse is unknown, but it is widely regarded as genetic. It primarily affects “toy” breeds – small dogs, such as Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus, and others – and though it can appear in dogs of any age, it appears more often in middle-aged to older dogs as the rings of the trachea weaken and collapse over time.

Besides the telltale “honking cough,” other symptoms include:

  • Exercise intolerance
  • Labored breathing
  • Bluish tinge to the gums

These symptoms can be worsened by obesity, excitement, eating and drinking, irritants such as smoke or dust, and hot and humid weather.

The most obvious sign of tracheal collapse is the “honking” cough, but a definitive diagnosis requires additional testing, which might include:

  • X-rays
  • Fluoroscopy (similar to an x-ray “movie”), which allows veterinarians to watch the trachea as a dog inhales and exhales. Fluoroscopy, however, is not widely available.
  • Bronchoscopy, which can be used to diagnose tracheal collapse as well as grade its severity.

Your veterinarian may also recommend a complete blood count and chemistry test to look for infection, inflammation, or metabolic disease that could complicate the tracheal problem.

Your veterinarian will recommend medication, surgery, or some combination of the two. The most common medications prescribed are cough suppressants. Other prescriptions may includebronchodilators, anti-inflammatory medication, or antibiotics. In obese dogs, weight loss helps and is strongly recommended.

In severe cases – when medication is minimally effective and tracheal collapse has severely affected the dog’s quality of life – surgery can be a viable option. This might involve installing prosthetic tracheal rings to reinforce the trachea. This surgery is not always straightforward and your veterinarian may recommend consultation with a surgical specialist. Most owners report that surgery results in an improved quality of life for their pet.

Prognosis and Management
Medication does not cure tracheal collapse and is used to manage the condition. This means that treatment is ongoing, and even with diligent control, most dogs continue to experience some symptoms of tracheal collapse. In some patients, surgery can significantly reduce clinical signs of tracheal collapse. Whether managed medically or surgically, dogs with tracheal collapse require regularly scheduled check-ins with a veterinarian for physical exams, rechecking of x-rays, and periodic blood work to screen for possible side effects from the medications.

When it comes to treatment and management of tracheal collapse, your veterinarian will recommend the best course of action in order to give your dog the longest and happiest life possible.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Collapsing Trachea In Dogs

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Collapsing trachea is a chronic condition found in dogs, especially older dogs and toy breeds, that causes a dry, hacking cough and difficulty breathing. It starts in the trachea (also known as the windpipe), which is a long tube made of cartilage that carries air from the nose and mouth down into the lungs.

A normal, healthy trachea is made up of small, C-shaped rings of cartilage that are covered by a thin membrane and held in place by connective muscle. These rings help keep the airway open wide while a dog is breathing. Sometimes, either due to aging or a deformity that’s present at birth, these rings can become weak and start to flatten out. When this happens, the membrane covering the trachea can droop inward, causing irritation and a constant tickle in the dog’s throat that triggers a persistent cough. Eventually, the dog’s trachea can actually collapse in on itself, leaving the dog struggling to breathe and gasping for air.

What Causes Collapsing Trachea?

Collapsing trachea can be caused by a hereditary genetic defect where a dog’s cartilage rings are not formed correctly. It’s also thought that some dogs are born with a deficiency of chondroitin, calcium, and glycoproteins, which are some of the substances that make up the cartilage rings.

Toy breeds, like this adorable Pomeranian, are most commonly afflicted with collapsing trachea.

But not all dogs with tracheal collapse are born with defective tracheal rings. In some cases, collapsing trachea can develop as a complication of Cushing’s disease, chronic respiratory disease, or heart disease.

Collapsing trachea is most commonly found in toy breeds, particularly Pomeranians, Yorkshire Terriers, Pugs, Chihuahuas, Malteses, Shih Tzus, Lhasa Apsos, Bichon Frises, and Toy Poodles. Brachycephalic breeds like Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Pekingeses, and French Bulldogs can also be affected. However, any dog, regardless of breed or age, can develop collapsing trachea.

Symptoms Of Collapsing Trachea

By far the most common sign of collapsing trachea is a dry, persistent “goose honk” cough that happens when a dog exerts himself or gets excited, or whenever there’s pressure placed on the dog’s trachea (like when his collar is grabbed or he pulls on the leash).

  • Difficulty breathing, even at rest
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Wheezing sound when breathing in
  • Turning blue when excited or stressed
  • Intolerance to heat
  • Fainting after stress or exercise
  • Gagging or vomiting while eating or drinking

It’s important to be able to distinguish between collapsing trachea and a condition known as reverse sneezing, since they can sound similar. In reverse sneezing, a dog experiences a temporary spasm in his soft palate (the fleshy area in the back of the throat), which causes him to rapidly suck in air through his nose and make a loud, snorting sound. While reverse sneezing is completely harmless, collapsing trachea is not.

Below is a dog experiencing a cough due to tracheal collapse:

Why Is Collapsing Trachea Dangerous?

If a dog with tracheal collapse coughs long or hard enough, the trachea can become so inflamed that it begins to swell. When this happens, the trachea becomes even more narrowed, causing the dog to go into respiratory distress. This is a life-threatening emergency that needs to be treated immediately. If the dog can’t breathe, his oxygen intake becomes so low that it can cause him to suffocate.

Collapsing trachea is particularly dangerous for dogs who are already suffering from heart disease or heart failure. But what’s alarming is that some studies have shown that the constant struggle to breathe from collapsing trachea can actually cause secondary heart disease.

Diagnosing Tracheal Collapse

If you suspect your dog is experiencing collapsing trachea, make an appointment with your veterinarian. There are several tests that can confirm if the problem is indeed tracheal collapse.

  • X-rays can help determine if the condition is originating in your dog’s chest, in his neck, or both.
  • Fluoroscopy, which is a type of “moving x-ray”, checks the size and condition of the dog’s trachea while he is actually breathing in and out. This is extremely helpful in diagnosing dogs who are displaying classic symptoms of collapsing trachea, but don’t show obvious evidence on x-rays.
  • Bronchoscopy involves inserting an endoscope with a tiny camera on the end directly into the trachea while the dog is under anesthesia. This allows the veterinarian to actually see inside the trachea and determine how severe the tracheal collapse is, as well as if there are any other abnormalities inside the airways. During a bronchoscopy, the veterinarian can also take samples of fluid and cells from inside the trachea for additional testing.

Since there are so many other conditions that can cause symptoms similar to collapsing trachea (like heart disease, lung disease, viral infections, tumors, or objects stuck in the airway), it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis so the right treatment can be provided.

Managing Collapsing Trachea

Collapsing trachea is an incurable, progressive condition that will only worsen with time. However, if your dog is suffering with this disease, there are things that can be done to manage it so that he or she can experience a much better quality of life.

Medical management usually works for about 70 percent of dogs with collapsing trachea. It typically consists of:

  • Keeping your dog at a healthy weight. Dogs who are overweight are more likely to experience breathing problems.
  • Limiting exposure to irritants like dust, allergens, and second-hand smoke. Using HEPA air filters in your home, vacuuming regularly, and eliminating exposure to cigarette smoke (this includes vapor e-cigarettes as well) will help your dog breathe more easily.
  • Using cough suppressants and/or bronchodilators to help quiet the cough and reduce inflammation. Breaking the cough cycle is key, since coughing further irritates the airway, leading to more coughing.
  • Treating all other underlying health conditions, including heart disease and Cushing’s disease.
  • Avoiding over-excitement and limiting exercise intensity, especially during hot and humid weather.
  • Preventing exposure to viral upper respiratory infections such as kennel cough, which can be common in boarding kennels.
  • Always walking your dog with a harness, NEVER with a neck collar. Reducing all pressure on the throat is key to avoiding triggering a cough.
  • Adding cartilage-builders such as glucosamine, chondroitin, or cetyl myristoleate (CMO) to your dog’s diet.

Although some veterinarians prescribe steroids such as prednisone for collapsing trachea, this is controversial. Steroids can reduce inflammation in the trachea, but they do nothing to prevent the collapse itself, and can come with a laundry list of side effects.

All dogs with collapsing trachea should be walked with a harness instead of a neck collar.

Many dog parents have experienced positive results treating their dogs with less traditional, holistic therapies. Amanda Genovese of Dog Mom Days outlines several treatments that have worked well for her Chihuahua with tracheal collapse in this article.

For dogs with severe cases of collapsing trachea who don’t respond well to medical management, sometimes surgery is recommended. There are 2 types of surgeries used to treat tracheal collapse.

The first procedure involves surgically placing small plastic rings around the trachea. The second uses stents, which are tiny devices shaped like springs, that hold the trachea open. The important thing to know about these surgeries is that they are not foolproof and can have significant complications. Both surgeries must be performed by a specialist and require general anesthesia, which can pose a risk to older dogs or those who already have other health issues. And although these surgeries can help lessen the symptoms of tracheal collapse, they are not a cure the dog will still need aggressive medical treatment for the rest of his life to manage the condition.

These are not simple surgeries, so if you are considering surgical treatment for a dog with collapsing trachea, talk it over in depth with your veterinarian so that you are aware of all the risks involved with these procedures.

Living With Tracheal Collapse

Here’s the good news. Although collapsing trachea is a chronic, progressive, incurable disease that requires medical management for a dog’s entire lifetime, if managed correctly, it very rarely causes premature death.

The key to successful management of collapsing trachea is controlling the coughing, and being alert for any signs of respiratory distress. Any dog who is struggling to breathe while having discharge from his nostrils and/or a blue or purple tongue should be seen by a veterinarian right away.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, and if you click on them and purchase a product, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Goodpetparent.com only shares products that we strongly believe in and feel would be beneficial for our readers.

Have you ever treated a dog with collapsing trachea? If so, what worked for your dog and what didn’t? Please share your story with us in the comments below!

Diagnosing Tracheal Collapse

Of course, not all small coughing dogs are suffering from tracheal collapse. It is vitally important that your dog gets a proper diagnosis made, especially if any initial treatment fails to control the signs and symptoms.

We get this diagnosis through imaging. Imaging is not always straightforward however.


X-rays are generally the first step. They are easiest and cheapest method, but they are not very accurate at picking up this problem.

1-in-4 dogs that have tracheal collapse diagnosed with x-rays will actually be wrong. X-rays are also not particularly sensitive. There will be a proportion of dogs which are diagnosed as negative for tracheal collapse which actually do have the condition.

Despite all this, x-rays are still an appropriate first step as they can be used to rule out other causes of coughing in small breed dogs, as well as being relatively cheap (compared to the other imaging options at least). Having x-rays taken under anesthesia can also allow your vet to perform other test, such as bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL), which are important steps in the diagnostic process.


The best way to diagnose tracheal collapse it is to use something called fluoroscopy. Think of this as real time x-ray on a TV screen. It is an x-ray video, rather than regular x-rays which as just take a single picture.

This is important because tracheal collapse is dynamic. The collapse is only going to be present when a dog is breathing in, or out, or with a certain amount of effort. All this depends on the individual dog’s disease and which section of the trachea is collapsing.

Unfortunately, flouroscopy is not available except in the most advanced veterinary centers, and carries a higher cost as a result.


Bronchoscopy is another valuable technique, and one that may be more readily available to your dog.

Bronchoscopy involves passing a tube with a camera on the end down into the airways to have a look at how they are shaped.

This will again be much more sensitive than x-ray, although it is also going to be significantly more expensive because of the equipment and expertise needed. This means it is not readily available in every clinic and certainly in every part of the world.

Managing a Dog with Collapsed Trachea at Home

You can help your dog recover from a collapsed trachea by keeping them away from any smoke, aerosols, dust, and other pollutants. Make sure the dog resides in a room with adequate ventilation and regularly change your air filters.

The dog’s diet may also need to be changed if they happen to be overweight. You may also want to take the dog on more walks, making sure to use a tap setup for the collar to avoid pressure on the trachea.

Always follow the advice of your veterinarian, but with a little care and some adjustment to your routine, your dog can be perfectly happy

This depends on the severity of the issue, and your veterinarian is always the best placed to give you advice.

Your veterinarian will explain everything to you, but yes, dogs can go on to live a reletively normal life after suffering from a collapsed trachea

This video gives some great advice on how to cope with this worrying condition:

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