Many older large-breed dogs breathe and pant as if something is caught in their throat. This is a disease called laryngeal paralysis. It is an inadequate opening of the larynx, or opening to the windpipe. This is due to weakness or paralysis of the vocal folds in the larynx. The disease varies widely in severity. It is very common in Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers older than 9. Male dogs are more commonly affected than female dogs. The primary cause of this condition is damage to the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which brings nerve supply to the vocal folds. In most cases, we do not know the exact cause of the paralysis.
Clinical signs include voice change, exercise intolerance, panting and difficult/noisy breathing. The dog produces a raspy, hoarse sound while breathing. Sometimes no obvious signs are present at rest, but even mild exercise can cause respiratory distress. The body temperature may rise and some dogs may collapse if they can’t get adequate oxygen.
Definitive diagnosis is made by direct visualization of the cartilages of the voice box. Poor movement, or “fluttering,” of the cartilages will be noted. Your vet may want to perform tests on your dog, such as X-rays of the neck, thyroid tests and other blood tests.
In an emergency, your dog may need oxygen, intravenous fluids and sedation. In severe cases, a temporary tracheotomy may be necessary. There is a surgical technique that many vets use, that consists of pulling one of the laryngeal cartilages out of the airway with suture so that air can move easily into the windpipe.
A potentially serious postoperative complication is aspiration pneumonia.
Mildly affected animals may do well (and not need surgery) if clinical signs do not progress. Many dogs with surgery will have improved breathing and be able to exercise better. Talk to your vet for their recommendation.
Dr. Karsten Fostvedt is a veterinarian at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum.