First, where is the trachea? What does it do?
The trachea, or windpipe, is a tube composed of cartilage, muscle and tissue, located between the throat and the lungs. Through it, air passes from the nose or mouth into and out of the lungs. It shares its entry point into the body with the esophagus. A small flap called the epiglottis closes when food or water enters, leading it toward the digestive tract, and opens for breathing. When the trachea’s structural integrity is compromised, so too is its functionality.
Whether the trouble is irritation and swelling during respiratory illnesses, a fault present from a young age due to genetic abnormalities, or one which develops with advancing age, a weak trachea prevents dogs from getting the oxygen they need. Since dogs sweat very little, panting provides not only fresh air but also heat relief, making the trachea critically important during the warmer parts of the year or during intense exercise.
Now, let’s further examine those three reasons a dog coughs after drinking water.
Also known as infectious canine tracheobronchitis, kennel cough in dogs is the least serious reason why a dog coughs after drinking water. Kennel cough is basically the common cold for canines. Like any communicable disease, it spreads most efficiently in places where there are a number of dogs in close quarters. From the dog park to the groomer, and from boarding facilities to veterinarians’ offices, kennel cough can affect any breed of dog at any age.
The major symptom of this mild respiratory infection is a cough that sounds like a goose honking. The more the dog coughs, the more irritated and inflamed the trachea becomes. In a multi-pet household, a dog with kennel cough should be isolated from other dogs and their bowls cleaned and disinfected. Kennel cough tends to pass within a couple of weeks, and any coughing with it.
If a dog coughs after drinking water, especially if that dog is a young puppy, it could signal a more serious health issue. A hypoplastic trachea is a genetic abnormality. “Hypoplastic” means “underdeveloped,” and usually refers to the rings of cartilage that give the trachea its shape. The effect of this inherited condition is that the windpipe does not develop to its full size or width. This disorder primarily affects puppies from short-muzzled breeds, technically referred to as “brachycephalic.”
Breeds most at risk for hypoplastic trachea include the Boston Terrier, English Bulldog and Pug. Symptoms depend on the extent to which the puppy’s airway is narrowed by the condition. These dogs are already known, as they age, to snore, snort or breathe more heavily; with a hypoplastic trachea, symptoms like these can begin showing up as early as five or six months of age. Additional symptoms to watch out for in flat-faced puppies include low energy, along with rapid weight gain due to limited ability to exercise.
On its own, a mild case, where the trachea’s diameter is not substantially affected, may pass completely unnoticed and undiagnosed. In some dogs, the narrow trachea can be a symptom of brachycephalic airway syndrome, in which the abbreviated length of the dog’s skull causes other cranial abnormalities, such as smaller nostrils, which further restrict a dog’s oxygen intake.
Where evidence of an underdeveloped trachea tends to arise quite early in life, symptoms of a collapsing trachea have a much later onset and tend to affect a different subset of dogs. This is a degenerative condition in which the trachea loses structural integrity over time. Imagine slowly flattening a roll of toilet paper and you have a decent of what happens to the dog’s windpipe. As the airway narrows, it becomes progressively more difficult for the dog to take in sufficient air.
Symptoms of a collapsing trachea tend to appear in middle age or seniority, which for these long-lived small dog breeds may be anywhere from the ages of 4-6 years or later. Similar to kennel cough and hypoplastic tracheas, the hallmark of this disorder is that honking cough, accompanied by a gagging noise. For small dogs who have been energetic and perky throughout life, a loss of energy or getting tired after very little exertion may be more alarming signs of a weakening trachea.
Anything with the word “collapse” or “collapsing” in it sounds dire, but in many cases, this is a very slowly developing health issue. It is most frequently seen in Yorkshire Terriers, but it is common across a range of small and toy dog breeds. Along with Yorkies, tracheal collapse can also affect Chihuahuas, Lhasa Apsos, Pomeranians, Toy Poodles and Pugs.
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Water Intoxication In Dogs
Previously, we have written about the risks of feeding a dog ahead of having a general anesthetic. One of very real dangers is that the dog vomits and inhales stomach acid down into the lungs, causing a form of pneumonia.
My caseload this week included a little dog with just such an aspiration pneumonia … but for a different reason.
Aspiration pneumonia can happen to any dog if they eat or drink in a certain way.
This little dog, Phoebe, hadn’t had an anesthetic but did have breathing and swallowing difficulties. This combination meant she had accidentally inhaled food while eating, which had resulted in a case of aspiration pneumonia.
So why would a dog be so clumsy as to inhale their food? Well, Phoebe hadn’t done this deliberately, but her anatomy was against her.
Phoebe is a Pekingese and has the typical flat face associated with the breed. Her narrow nostrils, outsized tongue and large tonsils meant she always pants heavily.
Unfortunately, the larynx — the structure designed to protect the entrance to her airway — wasn’t working properly. This made for a bad combination of circumstances that ended with serious pneumonia.
Phoebe must have been unlucky enough to inhale sharply at the same time as taking a mouthful of food. Sadly, her larynx didn’t properly protect the airway. The resulting suction, in a sort of siphon effect, had sucked food down into her lungs.
Phoebe’s symptoms included a cough, which got worse when she moved around. Even with moderate exercise, such as walking across the room, her lungs were unable to meet demand for extra air and she had to rest.
In short, Phoebe lost her mojo, stopped eating, lost weight and had an unpleasant hacking cough.