What Causes Panting and Trembling in Senior Dogs?
I love old dogs. I love their dirty gray snouts. I love her peaceful, cloudy eyes. I love that most of them have acquired a certain wisdom and gentleness. They have seen a lot in their life and their feathers are usually not easy to pucker.
Many things change in dogs as they get older. The lenses of her eyes develop a blue, cloudy tint. This normal phenomenon, called nuclear sclerosis, is harmless and does not affect quality of life. Many dogs develop arthritis and their gait can become stiff (owners of older dogs should speak to their vets about options for improving mobility). The hearing of old dogs is not as keen as it used to be. Older dogs may also need to urinate more frequently than younger dogs (and may therefore be more prone to accidents around the house). Old dogs tend to sleep harder.
Although the changes in the eyes sometimes alarm owners of old dogs, most of the others usually don’t cause much stress. They also occur in humans and are considered a normal part of aging.
However, two other common changes often cause dismay. Old dogs tend to gasp more than young dogs. They are also prone to tremors. Over the years, many people have asked me why these two things happen.
There is no easy answer. Wheezing and tremors are two of the least specific symptoms a dog can experience. Anything that could make a person sweat or shiver could cause a dog to gasp or shiver.
In the case of wheezing, there is a common and I’m happy to say generally benign group of factors that can cause the behavior. As the dogs age, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which are used for breathing, weaken. Older dogs can also be prone to having extra build-up of fat (which is a fancy way of saying they’re fatter) in their stomach and body wall. As a result, they sometimes find it easier to gasp, which requires less use of the diaphragm and muscles in the chest, as the breaths taken while gasping are rather shallow. These shallow breaths also encounter less resistance on the diaphragm caused by belly fat.
Tremors can also have relatively harmless causes. You must have noticed that the elderly often tremble – the hands and mouth may be the most common places that seniors tremble. A similar type of tremor (most commonly affecting the limbs and jaw) can occur in dogs. It appears to be associated with weakening of muscles with age along with slight degeneration of the nervous system.
Older dogs appear to be more reactive to excitement and adrenaline. Therefore, when an exciting or anxious situation arises, the stimulation of the event may work in conjunction with the factors listed above to induce or worsen wheezing and tremors.
If your older dog is panting or shaking more, these facts can comfort you. However, you shouldn’t get complacent. In some cases, both wheezing and trembling can be signs of a more serious problem.
Obesity is unfortunately common in older dogs. While the wheezing caused by obesity isn’t inherently harmful, being significantly overweight can lead to many other more serious problems. It can aggravate arthritis and mobility problems, as well as heart disease and other respiratory diseases.
Pain can be both wheezing and trembling. An older dog who gasps more may have back pain or arthritis pain that affects their quality of life.
Heart disease and breathing problems such as chronic bronchitis, collapsing windpipe, and larynx paralysis can cause wheezing. Glandular diseases like Cushing’s disease can also cause wheezing. Certain metabolic conditions can be both panting and trembling. Brain diseases can cause wheezing and trembling.
The sudden onset of wheezing can be a sign of a very serious problem. Wheezing is a common – and sometimes the only – symptom of stomach enlargement with volvulus, also known as GDV, and gas. This condition, most common in older, large dogs, is an emergency at the highest level and can be fatal in hours if not treated appropriately.
Finally, cognitive decline should be viewed as the cause of wheezing in older dogs. Wheezing caused by dementia may occur primarily at night and may be accompanied by restlessness and movement of the dog in atypical areas of the house. However, if your dog suddenly starts displaying these behaviors, keep in mind that gas is most common at night and can cause restlessness.
While much of the wheezing and trembling in older dogs has a harmless cause, there is no guarantee that such behaviors will be harmless in an older dog. Any owner of an older dog who is panting or shaking should have their pet checked out by a veterinarian.