The trachea is a fairly rigid tube (also known as the windpipe) that stretches from a dog’s neck to his chest and brings air into the lungs.

The structure is made up of cartilage rings, which can become weak and misshapen over time, causing varying degrees of windpipe obstruction. This hereditary canine condition is referred to as tracheal collapse, and it most commonly affects toy breeds, such as Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers and Pomeranians

Here’s a look at how the condition is diagnosed — and what veterinarians will do to treat it.

What Are the Symptoms of Tracheal Collapse?

Although the condition is hereditary, many dogs do not show signs of tracheal collapse until middle age. 

Affected dogs have a characteristic “honking” or “seal bark” cough that worsens when they are active or excited.

Severely afflicted canines may have long bouts of coughing, which can lead to respiratory distress and possibly even death because uncontrolled bouts of coughing often cause edema and swelling within the trachea. If you can keep the cough controlled — even in severely affected dogs — many of these canines will not experience life-threatening episodes.

How Is the Condition Diagnosed?

Tracheal collapse is often suspected in toy breed dogs who present with a telltale cough, but tests are required for a definitive diagnosis. 

Chest X-rays are used to determine whether the collapse is located in the throat (cervical) portion of the trachea or within the chest (intra-thoracic) area of the windpipe. While X-rays are a reasonable first test, they can under-diagnose the frequency and severity of the condition, so additional testing is often required.

Fluoroscopy, which is similar to a “moving X-ray,” can be helpful in making a diagnosis in dogs who have typical symptoms but don’t show obvious X-ray evidence of tracheal collapse. 

Bronchoscopy involves placing a scope directly into the trachea under anesthesia. The procedure provides a direct visual exam, making it an excellent way to determine how severe the tracheal collapse is, as well as whether there are other abnormalities within the airways.

How Do You Treat Tracheal Collapse?

There is no cure for the disease, but certain treatments can be successful at controlling the symptoms.    

For dogs suffering from tracheal collapse, there are some proactive things that pet owners can do:

  • Reduce a dog’s exposure to smoke, pollen, dust and other allergens by installing HEPA-style air filters and vacuuming regularly. 
  • Treat obesity by devising a weight-loss plan that’s supervised by your veterinarian.
  • Avoid overexcitement and limit intense exercise and activity.
  • Only use a harness. Affected dogs should never wear collars or neck leads. 
  • Provide adequate air conditioning and humidity control during warm months.
  • Address other health conditions, such as heart disease and Cushing’s disease
Medical treatment may involve the following:

  • Cough suppressants — every cough creates inflammation within the trachea, so keeping them under control is a must!
  • Inflammation within the trachea causes more coughing and more inflammation, and steroids can help break this vicious cycle. Traditionally, anti-inflammatory oral steroids were the only option, but now many affected dogs are successfully managed with inhaled steroids that produce fewer side effects. 
  • Bronchodilators can dilate the lower airways, making breathing easier in many afflicted dogs.
  • Antibiotics — affected dogs often have low-grade infections within the trachea or lower airways because of excess secretions and an inability to clear bacteria normally.

Are There Other Treatments for the Condition?

If the above treatments do not provide relief from the symptoms of tracheal collapse, surgery and stenting may be other options to consider.

Surgery tends to be most successful when the collapse is located within the throat (cervical) portion of the trachea. Basically, a rigid prosthesis is permanently placed around the trachea, effectively creating a noncollapsible tube. But surgery is an invasive procedure, which can be associated with significant complications.

A newer, noninvasive technique for treating tracheal collapse is the placement of an expandable metal stent inside the trachea with the aid of fluoroscopy or bronchoscopy. This is an especially useful technique if the collapse is located within the chest (intra-thoracic) portion of the trachea — an area that’s commonly affected and difficult to treat surgically.

Stent placement is not without potential risks and side effects, and it is not a cure, so aggressive medical treatment must continue in these dogs. But the procedure has been very successful at controlling symptoms in many dogs suffering from this debilitating condition.  

Dr. Donna Spector is a board-certified internal medicine specialist who practices in the northern Chicago area. She has special interests in canine and feline nutrition, gastrointestinal diseases, diabetes and Cushing’s disease.

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