John first noticed that Pebbles had a problem with her breathing over a year ago. When out on walks, her breathing had become noisy when she was panting after running around. At first he didn’t think too much about it: perhaps it was something that happened as dogs grew older, in the same way as some elderly people had noisy breathing.
As time passed, her breathing became even louder, and John noticed that she was beginning to struggle to get her breath after exertion. When he brought her to see me, the cause of her problem was clear: she was suffering from disease that’s common in older Labradors: Laryngeal Paralysis.
The larynx is opening to the windpipe at the back of the throat. It’s a delicate structure, with a rich nerve supply and a web-like cluster of muscles that allow it to function effectively. When a dog is eating, the larynx clamps shut, to prevent food from being inhaled rather than swallowed. When a dog exercises, the muscles open the larynx as wide as possible, allowing air to rush in and out smoothly.
In laryngeal paralysis, the larynx remains half-closed all the time: the muscles that normally open it no longer do their job. A dog with a paralysed larynx can function normally when living quietly around the home, but if there’s any activity that requires exertion, the breathing becomes noisy and laboured. Air cannot move in and out of the windpipe smoothly because of the half-closed larynx. The condition is progressive: as time passes, the breathing becomes laboured even following the mildest of activities.
I explained to John that the only cure for Pebbles was a major surgical operation to artificially fix her larynx in a wide-open position. This was the only way that the narrowness of her airway could be relieved. It was a big operation, but the success rate was good.
John was concerned about the fact that Pebbles, at twelve years of age, was already an older dog. She seemed too old to put through such a serious operation. He wasn’t keen to go ahead with it, so for a few months, I treated Pebbles with tablets to try to reduce the narrowing of her larynx. This method is rarely effective for the long term, and I wasn’t surprised when John came back to me a few months later. He’d decided that the breathing problem was bothering Pebbles too much: it was time for the surgical option.
Pebbles was referred to the surgery department at the Veterinary Hospital in UCD for the surgery: the operation is a highly specialist procedure. By the time she went in, Pebbles was gasping, with noisy breathing at the slightest exertion. When she went out into the back garden to do her business, it sounded as if she had whooping cough.
John took her into UCD on a Monday. She had the operation on the Tuesday, and he collected her on the Wednesday. The improvement in her condition was astonishing: she was like a different dog, with quiet breathing for the first time in many months.
It took Pebbles a few weeks to recover fully from the operation, but she’s now completely back to normal. She’s like a young dog again, able to exercise enthusiastically with no problem.
John had been reluctant to let her have the operation in view of her age, but now that he’s seen how the surgery has transformed her quality of life, he’s keen to let as many people know about it as possible.
If your older dog is diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis, even if she’s getting on in years, John’s convinced that you should get the operation done. There can be complications, as with any surgery, but from what John has seen, it’s well worth the risk.
Laryngeal paralysis is a common cause of noisy breathing in older dogs, especially Labradors
The only long term cure for the problem involves surgery
Even in older dogs, the operation is usually highly successful