Pet 411: Dealing with tracheal collapse in dogs

There are a variety of different conditions we need to be on the lookout for as our dogs age. If your older pup suddenly develops a honking cough, there’s a chance it could be collapsing trachea.

It sounds scary, but it’s a fairly common affliction, particularly among toy breeds. I received an email from a reader who has been treating her 12-year-old dog for a suspected collapsed trachea for about six months. She wanted to know more about the condition and what she can expect moving forward.

Tracheal collapse occurs when the windpipe cartilages weaken. When this happens, the membrane from the cartilage drapes loosely over the windpipe, blocking the inside of the trachea. Depending on where the collapse is most severe, this can result in difficulty bringing air into and out of the trachea and lungs.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most obvious signs of a collapsed trachea is a honking cough. The cough may be prompted by excitement, eating, drinking, irritants such as smoke or dust, and hot or humid weather. Other signs may include labored breathing, exercise intolerance and a bluish tinge to the gums.

If you notice any of these, I recommend seeing your family veterinarian as quickly as possible. Neck and chest X-rays may reveal a collapsed trachea, but in somecases fluoroscopy may be necessary for a definitive diagnosis. Fluoroscopy offers real-time video images of the trachea as the dog breathes, which can be very helpful.

Tracheal collapse can often times be accompanied by a secondary infection, such as pneumonia. So your doctor’s initial priority may be treating that infection. Most cases of tracheal collapse are treated with bronchodilators, anti-inflammatory medication, cough suppressants and antibiotics.

If medical therapy stops working, other procedures can be considered. A tracheal stent may be recommended, which typically has a success rate of about 80 percent. However, the procedure does have the potential to create side effects as well, which is why we always try medications initially.

You’ll have to keep a careful eye on your dog for signs of worsening, and controlling their weight will be very important going forward. But overall, a dog can live a long and happy life with this diagnosis.

Thanks so much for writing, and I hope that all of you have a happy and healthy New Year!

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.