Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
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Has your dog been coughing more? Are they having trouble eating? Have you noticed a change in the sound of their bark? If so, you may want to talk to your veterinarian about canine laryngeal paralysis.
What Is Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs?
This is one of the more fairly simple disease to understand. As in humans, a dog's larynx, also called a voice box, must open and close so they can breathe, drink and eat. Sometimes, as dogs age, the nerves that control the muscles that open and close the larynx stop working. Not only does this affect the dog's bark, but the larynx is unprotected during eating and drinking and is loose and droops down during breathing, making breathing labored.
Risk Factors for Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
When dogs are born with this condition, it's commonly referred to as a congenital disease, (meaning that they are born with it versus developing the condition later in life). On the other hand, when dogs develop it over their lifetime, it's an acquired disease. Unfortunately, we rarely know the cause of the disease's development, particularly when the cause is less subtle than a physical cause at the larynx, such as a tumor or trauma to the region.
In other acquired cases, the disease usually affects middle-aged and senior dogs, and some affected dogs may develop neurological signs elsewhere in their body, either before or after the problems with the larynx develop. This suggests that the disease may be associated with generalized problems affecting the nervous system. Myasthenia gravis and degenerative polyneuropathy are examples of neurological diseases that may be a risk factor for the development of laryngeal paralysis.
According to the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Saint Bernards, Newfoundlands, Dalmatians and English setters are all commonly affected by laryngeal paralysis, though any dog can have the condition. Overweight dogs are at a higher risk of developing it than dogs at a healthy weight, and dogs with endocrine system diseases, such as hypothyroidism or diabetes mellitus, have been associated with the development of laryngeal paralysis. Dogs who live in hot and humid environments also tend to be more affected.
Signs of Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs
Coughing and noisy breathing are often the first signs of the condition that you'll notice. Dogs with this condition usually inhale rather than exhale noisily. Panting can exacerbate the loud inhalation.
As the disease progresses, your dog may tire easily, develop a change in their bark, and cough or gag when eating and drinking. Signs are usually progressive. As the disease advances, swallowing can become problematic. In rare cases, the degeneration of the nerves can move beyond the larynx and spread to cause generalized neurological weakness. Sudden collapse can also be a sign of laryngeal paralysis, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual.
To diagnose the condition, your vet will ask you to share your dog's health history. They'll also likely conduct physical and neurological exams.
Your vet might want to take X-rays of the chest and basic bloodwork to confirm the diagnosis. All in all, it's usually fairly straightforward to diagnose the condition.
Not only is the diagnosis somewhat easy, but great treatment options are available and can be tailored to your dog's needs. For dogs who are only slightly affected by the condition, lifestyle changes like avoiding strenuous exercise and overly warm conditions may be sufficient. If your dog is overweight, losing excess pounds will be very important. Medicine to reduce inflammation and swelling of the larynx is often helpful as well.
Dogs who have more severe difficulty breathing or a variety of signs are often considered great candidates for surgery. While there are different techniques, a laryngeal tieback surgery is most vets' surgery of choice. A board-certified veterinary surgeon will usually perform the procedure.
The surgery involves tying back, or suturing, the affected part of the larynx into a permanently open position. This helps compensate for the nerves that can no longer adequately open the larynx. This relieves upper airway obstruction and associated clinical signs when the larynx isn't able to open and close effectively. Since this surgery leaves the larynx open, it increases the risk of pneumonia.
In the rare case that the surgery is unsuccessful, a tracheotomy can be performed to surgically open the trachea and insert a permanent tube to keep the weakened structures open.
The prognosis for laryngeal canine paralysis is great. Surgery usually drastically improves a dog's quality of life. The main complication to watch for is the potential for developing aspiration pneumonia. Your dog's risk can be reduced by following your vet's recommendations and knowing the signs to look for.
For dogs with a neurological weakness that spreads beyond the larynx, the outlook is harder to predict. These dogs still tend to improve greatly, but the extent of improvement is less consistent.
Preventing Laryngeal Paralysis
Because vets don't fully understand what causes the condition, no one yet knows how to completely prevent it. If you get your dog from a breeder, ask to make sure the condition is screened for — especially if the dog is a breed that commonly suffers from laryngeal paralysis. Commit to keeping your dog at a healthy weight to prevent obesity, which is a risk factor for the condition.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible is a small animal veterinarian, veterinary journalist, and thought leader in veterinary telehealth. She lives in Florida with her son, the world's largest standard poodle, and her two toilet-trained cats.