Written by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya, DVM
We rarely think about breathing and how necessary it is until we've got a problem with it. Anyone who's suffered an asthma attack gains an appreciation for breathing and knows not to take it for granted. Gasping for breath makes many people and animals panic and with good reason -- life requires breathing. Remember how exhausted you felt when you had a chest cold and it took half your energy just to breathe? The debility of most chest colds doesn't even come close to how difficult breathing can be with severe asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, lung cancer, or untreated congestive heart failure. Not breathing ends life. Labored breathing can seriously compromise quality of life.
Some of the conditions that affect breathing can be difficult to treat. Even so, there are things that can help, which is what this section is about.
If there is fluid build up in the space around the lungs, removing that fluid will often provide fairly rapid relief. The procedure to remove the fluid is called a thoracocentesis and can be performed by a veterinarian, even on an outpatient basis. You will still need to determine the cause of the fluid build up and address that issue, but at least your animal companion will be more immediately comfortable.
Drugs like diuretics, or bronchodilators, or steroids and sometimes provide relief depending on the condition. These drugs can also have side effects, so it really is important to have a good working relationship with a veterinarian.
Certain positions make breathing easier than others. If it is the upper airway that's challenged, keeping the patient's neck straight and outstretched with pillows can help. For some individuals, the "U" shaped travel pillows work well. Some dog patients have learned to sleep with a tennis ball in their mouth, which helps keep their tongue town and opens up their airway.
If it is the lower airways that are compromised, then the most optimal positions will be those that allow the patient's chest to move freely. Again, pillows can help your animal companion maintain the most comfortable position with the least amount of effort. For larger dogs, body pillows can be hooked under armpits to provide support for staying upright. Sometimes leaning up against the back of the sofa. Some animals like lying on their backs.
You'll have to use common sense to negotiate trying to get your animal companion in the most optimal position. You do not want to create unecessary stress doing this because it will increase your pet's oxygen requirements.
Minimize stress. Relaxed patients require less oxygen than stressed or anxious patients. Herbals and sometimes drugs even, that help patients to relax, will lower their oxygen requirements. Looked at another way, an animal companion whose breathing is labored enough that it can't sleep does have a compromised quality of life.
Don't forget hydration. A lot of vapor is lost during mouth-breathing and that fluid needs to be replaced. Water should be available at all times. Ice cubes and popsicles might be welcome treats to help moisten dry mouths.
Oxygen therapy. Oxygen tanks and tubing for home use can be prescribed by your veterinarian. There are precautions that go along with this therapy -- no open flames, sparks, candles, and no smoking. It will require some creativity to create an oxygen chamber for your animal companion. For small pets, a kennel can be wrapped in a plastic wrap and the oxygen ported into the chamber. Most of the home oxygen tanks are small and hold only a few hours worth of oxygen, so you need to make sure that the tank does not empty and leave your pet in a low oxygen chamber. Larger pets can wear an elizabethan collar with plastic wrap across the opening -- essentially a chamber around their head -- with oxygen ported into the chamber. Sometimes, just resting the tube with flowing oxygen near the resting patient's nose will supplement their needs adequately. Most people who set up home oxygen chambers of one sort or another do so with the intent of being able to "pulse" their animal companion with oxygen when they become particularly winded. Long term confinement in an oxygen chamber in order to stay alive is not considered Living by most standards.
Supporting an animal companion with compromised breathing really does require a close relationship with a veterinarian. Sometimes things can change rapidly, and respiratory distress is not the type of distress that should be left untended. Knowing what warning signs to watch for will help you avoid crises and keep your animal companion as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.