Allergic Airway Disease in Dogs


Acute respiratory distress in dogs is always an emergency situation that requires immediate veterinary care. A reaction to common allergens, allergic airway disease requires veterinary oversight and at-home diligence, but with the right combination of both kinds of care, it can be managed quite easily.

Types and Causes

The most common type of allergic airway disease in dogs is asthma, a disease of the lower respiratory tract. Mostly found in small dogs, it is characterized by constriction of the bronchials, hyperreactivity to allergens, and airway inflammation. In larger dogs, chronic bronchitis is the most common airway disease with many of the same symptoms. While allergies may trigger an acute onset, exercise exertion may also lead to an asthmatic episode. The similarities between bronchitis and asthma in dogs may make diagnosis and treatment difficult and will need to be determined by a licensed veterinarian.


A chronic, hacking, nonproductive cough is the most common symptom of airway disease in both large and small dogs. There is usually an acute onset of labored breathing with audible wheezing. The dog may sit in a pronounced position to force abdominal expiration and facilitate lung expansion. Animals will often be lethargic and may vomit their food due to the excessive coughing.


For most dogs, avoidance of allergens plus medication is the recommended treatment. Animals may show allergic reactions to anything from cigarette smoke to ragweed and grass, perfumes and aerosols. Some dogs have also shown respiratory reactions to systemic parasites. Determining what the animal is allergic to may require a number of medical tests. A veterinarian may recommend radiographs to determine lung function and a fecal test, heartworm test or bronchial wash to determine if the animal has worms that are affecting the respiratory system. Medical management of this disease may include steroids to quell inflammation, regular administration of a bronchodilator (usually in pill form), and oxygen therapy. Antihelminthics, or wormers, may be recommended if parasites are present.


Acute attacks of allergic airway disease have been known to collapse the trachea, particularly in the smaller breeds of dogs. Excessive coughing may bring on cardiac arrhythmias caused by decreased airflow. Diagnosis is often difficult and prolonged as the symptoms are sometimes masked by the dog’s prior condition, such as heart disease or a viral/bacterial infection.


Prognosis for dogs with allergic airway disease is variable. Medical therapy for those with chronic asthma or bronchitis must be ongoing. Acute bouts of respiratory distress require aggressive treatment at a veterinary hospital. A cure is usually not possible, but if exposure to known allergens can be decreased before permanent lung damage occurs, most dogs will do well.

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  • The Veterinary ICU Book, Wayne E. Wingfield, Mark R. Raffe, 2002
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