My job as a veterinarian would be a heck of a lot easier if our pets would speak English. Pet owners and veterinarians both spend considerable time and energy trying to make clumsy human interpretations of a pet’s behaviors. Are you sick? Are you in pain? Are you upset that I came home late from work? Do you hate Grandma?
Our pets each have their own unique personalities, and some are more communicative than others. They all “talk,” but sometimes we just can’t understand what they’re saying.
One thing is for sure—when they are showing signs of illness, it can be pretty tricky finding out exactly what is wrong. One of the most non-specific signs that I get a lot of questions about is panting. Here’s a typical case:
“Rosie” is a 13-year-old Lab mix who is definitely showing her age. She has cataracts, is mostly deaf, and she has a lot of arthritis, which makes her pretty stiff when she is getting up or lying down. Other than those issues, however, she eats well and still seems happy when her family is surrounding her.
Rosie’s owners are concerned because she does a lot of panting at seemingly random times. Sometimes when they are watching TV, Rosie will sit up and start panting. Other times, she will wake her owners up in the night panting in her bed and then pacing around the bedroom.
Rosie’s owners always have air conditioning on and are concerned that she may be panting because she’s in pain. After examining her and seeing that she is mostly blind and deaf and has a lot of arthritis, I wish that she could just tell me.
Panting is something dogs (and cats!) do that we humans simply don’t. By rapid, shallow breathing, panting is first and foremost a way for dogs and cats to cool themselves as they exhale warmer air and inhale somewhat cooler air. Thus, it makes sense that during exercise dogs will pant as they work themselves up.
A quick note on cats panting: if cats were inclined to exercise, they would pant, too. Experts agree that cats are generally too cool to do something like exercise, so they usually don’t get too hot and thus don’t pant. But they can!
But what about Rosie? I’m left to my own clumsy interpretation here. Fortunately, years of experience have given me a few leads on why some older dogs pant a lot when it doesn’t seem particularly hot.
Panting because they are hot
Okay, how many of you have been in the car, say with a spouse or significant other, and had a disagreement over how high the A/C should be? This is probably your older dog. You humans think your home is so nice at 70 degrees. Meanwhile, they are wearing a heavy fur coat and have all sorts of hormonal stuff going on and they are simply hot!
Many older dogs have imbalances in hormonal control of their temperature set point. Things like elevated cortisol and other adrenal hormones can make them feel quite warm in a 70-degree home. I have been on prednisone before (synthetic cortisol) and predictably would wake up with night sweats. Dogs don’t sweat, so they wake you up in the middle of the night panting.
Panting because they are anxious
Dogs who are nervous or anxious will definitely pant. This is very well-documented. It’s also common that as dogs age and become a bit “senile,” they can have generalized anxiety. As I see it, the once confident dog has started to lose his vision or hearing or sense of smell, and is also slowing down a bit in the brain-processing department. All these lead to a lack of confidence in interpreting and living in their environment and the result is often some anxiety. It’s often displayed as being more clingy with owners, separation anxiety, and panting. Sometimes when your older dog is walking around the house at 10 p.m. panting, they are simply anxious and they may not know what they are anxious about. Elderly dogs with senility can also suffer from “sundowning syndrome,” and get significantly more agitated at night.
Panting because they are in pain
This worries most people. “My dog is old and has arthritis, and who knows what other problems. Could she be panting because she’s in pain?” The honest answer is yes. However, most of the time we can figure out if they are in pain or just hot or anxious. Dogs will absolutely pant if they are in considerable pain, but the degree of pain that causes panting typically comes with other signs of pain: walking with a hunched, splinted abdomen. Yelping. Not eating. Becoming withdrawn or antisocial. Growling or snapping when approached. I find that if the only reason a dog is panting is pain, there will be other pain signs present as well. Admittedly, this possibility worries me the most as well. There are a lot of scary things that can cause pain that I simply can’t find on a physical exam—abdominal tumors, a painful gall bladder, and painful nerve impingement, to name a few. But a good history and physical exam usually point us in the right direction.
So, if your older dog is starting pant a lot and still refuses to speak English, consider having them checked out by your veterinarian to make sure the only thing you need to do is turn down your air conditioning.