Why Do Dogs Pant?

It's a common scenario: You take your dog for a run and when you stop, your pup is panting. Or maybe the panting comes after a game of fetch or tug-of-war. Why do dogs pant, and should you be concerned if it pops up unexpectedly?

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Sheer Excitement
In many cases, a dog's panting is simply a side effect of their enthusiasm. You get home from a long day at work to find your pooch anxiously waiting by the door, tail and tongue wagging. There's no need to worry. The panting will typically subside as your pet settles down.

Staying Cool
Other times, the panting comes as a physiological necessity. As most of us already know, dogs cool off differently than their human owners do. For starters, they have fewer sweat glands, and those they do have are concentrated around the feet, particularly the paw pads. Plus, those beautiful fur coats they wear complicate things, blocking the skin's surface from airflow and reducing the effectiveness of the whole sweat process.

So how does your puppy cool off? In large part via panting. A resting dog typically takes 20 to 30 breaths each minute. But when it's time to cool down, it drastically increases to more than 10 times that rate! This fast, efficient action allows moisture from the mucus membranes of the mouth, tongue and throat to evaporate. It also cools the respiratory system and major blood vessels in the head. With a few minutes of heavy breathing, Fido will likely bring his body temperature back down to its usual 101- to 102-degree temperature.

Expressing Fear
Panting is also associated with stress and can take place without any heat or physical exertion to explain it. Dogs who are anxious or fearful often pant as a kind of stress reliever. Common triggers can include loud noises and flashes of light, like thunder and lightning, as well as new, unknown scenarios. So don't be surprised if your new dog starts panting in his inaugural training class.

Just Born That Way
It's not uncommon for breeds with shorter snouts, otherwise known as brachycephalic breeds, to pant more often -- both at rest and after exercising. These can include English bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers and shih tzus, among others. That said, owners of these breeds should pay extra attention to their pets' panting to catch other signs that could indicate heatstroke or serious illness.

Carrying Too Much Weight
Dogs who are overweight often pant more than average-sized pups because they have a harder time regulating their body temperature. This means they can get warmer quicker, which also makes them more susceptible to heatstroke. Make diet and exercise a priority for dogs who are carrying extra weight to minimize unnecessary health risks.

Signal of More Serious Health Issues
Panting isn't always harmless; it can be a warning sign of a larger problem. There are several common issues that can involve panting in canines, all of which require immediate medical attention:

1) Heatstroke - It's a slippery slope from exercise to overexertion, particularly when it's hot outside. If your dog has been exercising, panting can be normal, but if it's accompanied by heavy drooling, a dry mouth and nose, pale or extremely dark gums, and severe lethargy, it may be more serious. If you suspect heatstroke, cool the dog immediately by placing ice packs or cold, wet towels where the legs meet the body. This helps circulate blood. Also make sure your dog has cool water to drink, and take your pet to the vet ASAP.

2) Poisoning or an Allergic Reaction - Unexpected panting may be indicative of poisoning or an allergy, particularly if it's coupled with vomiting and extreme sluggishness. A severe allergic reaction can also make it difficult for a dog to breathe, so immediate veterinary care is important.

3) Illnesses - Dogs with heart or respiratory problems (like Cushing's syndrome or pneumonia) often pant more than otherwise healthy dogs. If you notice your dog is panting abnormally with no other symptoms, contact your local veterinarian.

By Tara Hall