Why Use a Harness for Dogs with Collapsed Trachea

When your dog suffers from a collapsed trachea, one of the first things you will want to do is change out their collar for a harness. The first sign of tracheal collapse is a cough that sounds like a honking goose. The cough, along with other symptoms, is most apparent when your dog’s collar is pulled. The use of a harness will be a tremendous help in alleviating the issues caused by a collapsed trachea.

Why should you use a harness for your dog with a collapsed trachea? Any dog with a tracheal collapse should wear a harness as opposed to a collar because it reduces all pressure on their throat.

Collars are used to control a dog by pushing on the sensitive and vulnerable areas of the neck, which is where vital structures such as the airway are located. Using a harness will alleviate strain on the neck because it fits around the chest and rib cage instead.

All dogs can suffer from tracheal collapse, but small and senior dogs are more vulnerable. Smaller dogs, especially, more fragile necks and tracheas. In fact, this condition is most common in breeds like the Chihuahua, Lhasa Apso, Maltese, Pomeranian, Pug, Shih Tzu, Toy Poodle, and Yorkshire Terrier. If you have a dog under 20 pounds, the constant pulling from their collar can damage their sensitive throats. Any amount of pressure on a small dog’s throat can lead to or exacerbate a collapsed trachea.

What is a Collapsed Trachea?

Tracheal collapse is a chronic, progressive disease that impacts the windpipe, or trachea in the throat. A collapsed trachea can severely affect your dog’s breathing and, if not diagnosed and treated properly, may lead to serious health problems.

Just as in people, the trachea carries air from your dog’s nose and mouth through the neck and into the lungs. It is a tube, somewhat like a vacuum cleaner hose, made up of c-shaped rings of cartilage connected by muscle. The rigid rings keep the airway open.

When the tracheal rings become weak they begin the collapse, resulting in a narrower airway. When this happens, your dog’s breathing becomes difficult and they will acquire a chronic cough. If not treated, a collapsed trachea could lead to more serious problems.

A collapsed trachea can be a congenital defect, meaning it’s present from birth, or it can be acquired. If the disease is congenital, the cartilage rings contain certain deficiencies that cause them to weaken and soften, causing them to collapse. An acquired tracheal collapse is often caused by certain underlying respiratory diseases, such as Cushing’s disease and heart disease.

When your dog’s cartilage rings are either not formed correctly at birth, or they begin to weaken from a condition, they will begin to change from a c-shape to a u-shape. The cartilage rings will get progressively flatter, especially if a collar is putting pressure and strain on your dog’s neck until the trachea collapses. This will leave your dog trying to breathe through something similar to a closed straw.

Signs and Symptoms of a Collapsed Trachea

One of the first signs of a collapsed trachea in your dog is a sudden attack of coughing that sounds somewhat like a honking goose. This will then progress to a more consistent and persistent cough, most often occurring when there’s pressure placed on the trachea.

As the disease progresses, your dog will begin to show obvious signs of respiratory distress. He will also show other clinical signs that will vary with the severity of the collapse, along with how narrow the airway becomes.

Additional symptoms of a collapsed trachea include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Retching
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Fainting
  • Wheezing
  • Gagging 

Certain factors may bring about or exacerbate the symptoms of a collapsed trachea, including:

  • Obesity
  • Eating
  • Drinking
  • Exercise
  • Excitement
  • Stress
  • Irritants, like smoke or dust
  • Hot and humid weather

None of the signs and symptoms associated with a collapsed trachea are unique to the disease. Any adverse condition of the upper or lower airway can be mistaken for tracheal collapse, including laryngeal paralysis, an elongated soft palate, infection of the trachea or lungs, heart failure, a foreign object in the airway, and tumors or polyps. You will need to get a proper diagnosis from your veterinarian to confirm a diagnosis of tracheal collapse.

How to Diagnose a Collapsed Trachea

In order to diagnose a collapsed trachea in your dog, your veterinarian will start by taking a complete health history and performing a physical examination. The vet may even be able to trigger a cough by pressing on your dog’s windpipe. They will then need to perform some diagnostic tests to confirm that it is, in fact, a collapsed trachea. The tests may include:

  • X-ray – An x-ray may be able to detect tracheal collapse by showing the narrowing of the tracheal opening, but it is not always the most effective method.
  • Fluoroscopy – A fluoroscopy is a type of moving x-ray that allows the vet to visualize your dog’s trachea as it breathes in and out.
  • Endoscopy – This is the most effective, but also most intrusive, method to diagnose a collapsed trachea. After numbing your dog’s airway, the vet will insert a tube with an attached video camera down its throat. This allows a view of the inside of the trachea, as well as the ability to collect culture samples for additional analysis.

An echocardiogram may also need to be performed to evaluate your dog’s heart function and to help determine a treatment plan.

How to Treat a Collapsed Trachea Treated

If your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with a collapsed trachea, the next step will be to find an effective treatment. Although treatment won’t cure the disease, most dog’s show an excellent long-term response to it. It’s important to break the coughing cycle because a cough irritates the already-compromised airway and leads to more complications.

Medical Treatments for a Collapsed Trachea

Treatments for a collapsed trachea can include:

  • Cough suppressants – These not only control the annoying symptom, but high-quality cough suppressants they also help reduce the irritation and inflammation that promotes more coughing.
  • Anti-inflammatories – Corticosteroids may be prescribed to reduce the swelling of the trachea.
  • Bronchodilators – These medications will open up small airways within the lungs, which will then ease the pressure put on the trachea.
  • Sedatives – Light, oral sedation can help reduce your dog’s anxiety or excitement, which will keep their symptoms from getting worse.
  • Antibiotics – There is a higher risk of infection with tracheal collapse. Your dog may be prescribed an antibiotic if an infection is suspected.
  • Anabolic steroids – Stanozolol, a derivative of testosterone, can help treat a collapsed trachea. It offers anti-inflammatory support and may help to strengthen cartilage.

Since there is no way to cure your dog’s collapsed trachea, it is very important to continue with the treatments recommended by your veterinarian. Always monitor your dog’s condition and, if at any time you notice that symptoms are getting worse, contact your vet immediately.

Surgical Treatments for a Collapsed Trachea

Most dogs respond well to medication, but if your dog does not improve after several weeks of treatment, or their condition is affecting their quality of life, you may need to consider surgical options.

There are two options your veterinary surgeon may recommend: placing artificial rings on the outside of your dog’s trachea or putting a stent inside the trachea. Both options will prevent collapse, but one may be recommended over the other depending on your dog’s specific situation. 

Both surgeries have high success rates, especially with dogs under 6 years of age. However, complications can occur, and some dogs may continue to need some medical management even after surgery. You also need to keep in mind that either surgical procedure will be expensive.

Lifestyle Changes for a Collapsed Trachea

Many dogs that suffer from tracheal collapse also suffer from various other conditions like obesity, heart disease, liver enlargement, dental problems, and conditions affecting their voice box (larynx). All of these conditions will make the symptoms of a collapsed trachea worse, so they must be addressed in order for your dog to have a better quality of life.

While some of these conditions may need the help of your vet, there are certain lifestyle changes for your pet that you can do at home.

  • Your dog should be fed a diet that helps them lose or maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Your dog’s home should be free of cigarette smoke, allergens, dust, and strong fragrances.
  • Your dog should be exercised on a regular basis.

Exercise, however, has both benefits and potential risks if your dog has a collapsed trachea. It can help with weight management and relaxing your dog, but it can also make matters worse. If your dog gets over-excited, over-worked, or over-exposed to irritants while on a walk, their symptoms will worsen. Take your dog for slow, easy walks, and determine the best time of day and length that will work.

Most importantly, if your dog has a collapsed trachea, he or she should only wear a choke-free harness. A dog with a tracheal collapse should never wear anything around their necks, especially while out for a walk, that will put pressure on their windpipe.

What Types of Harnesses Are Available?

Walking offers so many benefits to you and your dog – building strong bones and joints, preventing obesity, and increasing longevity – and these benefits can also help improve some of the symptoms associated with your dog’s tracheal collapse.

Finding the right harness for your dog is important. Besides protecting your dog’s windpipe, harnesses offer more control, making them even more ideal for dogs who pull while walking. Harnesses are easier to use when redirecting aggressive behavior, and they can help improve leash training.

The Back-Clip Harness

This harness features a clip that attaches between your dog’s shoulder blades. Because they don’t offer as much control or pressure as the front-attaching type, back-clip harnesses are perfect for smaller breeds that don’t pull as much. Also, a dog wearing a back-clip harness won’t get its leash tangled between its legs.

Not all back-clip harnesses are created equally, but by far one of the best you could get your dog is Winsee No-Pull Back-Clip Dog Harness (link to read reviews on Amazon). Their harness is incredibly easy to use and even comes with reflective strips.

The Front-Clip Harness

Front-clip harnesses offer more control over a back-clip harness. They attach around the chest area and feature a front leash attachment point. This offers gentle correction and discourages your dog from pulling. The front-clip harness is perfect for training your dog not to pull or jump up while walking.

One of the most popular front-clip harnesses for dogs has to go to the Ruffwear No-Pull Front-Clip Dog Harness (link to read reviews on Amazon). It comes with extra padded strips so your dog will feel extra comfortable when they’re pulling you along. It’s really hard to beat the quality of Ruffwear’s harness!

How to Use a Harness

Fitting your dog with a harness is easy. Follow these 5 simple steps:

  1. Open the harness and place it on the ground.
  2. Get your dog to stand over the harness.
  3. Manually help your dog step his paws through the loops.
  4. Pull the harness up around your dog’s torso and secure it.
  5. Tighten the straps so the harness fits snugly, making sure that you can fit two fingers between the harness and your dog’s body.

To help your dog accept the harness and associate it with a positive experience, use treats to encourage and reward him. If your dog resists at first, be patient and wait a few hours before trying to put it on again.

Once your dog has accepted having the harness on, let him wear it as much as possible, even when not on walks. Soon, they will feel comfortable with it on and you will have the peace of mind that they will not be damaging their collapsed trachea.