Q: My dog pants all the time. My vet says it’s normal, but sometimes I think he pants more than other dogs.
A: Consider that dogs have no sweat glands like we humans do. Humans use sweat glands as a heat-exchange mechanism, cooling the skin via the evaporation of secreted fluid (i.e., sweat). Dogs are forced to get cool by running cool air over hot blood to help cool it down.
Pads, ears and other hairless areas can help cool dogs the same way, but these zones have nothing on the tongue when it comes to blood vessel density. The tongue is way more vascular than these, making heat exchange way more efficient.
In most cases, panting will get louder, deeper and faster by way of a simple physiologic response to heat (the need for cooling). But it can also be a result of exertion, since, like us, dogs pant when they need to take more air into their lungs so they can supply their body with more oxygen. Which is all normal.
Even extreme or unusually frequent panting can be normal. Sometimes, it’s all about excitability, as when dogs are shown their favorite toy. Or old age, at which time many dogs will pant for reasons we term “idiopathic” (meaning we’re not completely sure why they do it).
Still, there are times when the perceptive owner has got to start wondering: Is my dog’s panting normal? Because sometimes a pant can get extreme –– and not always for benign reasons.
For example, when accompanied by bright pink gums, eyes and skin, panting can be a sign of heat stress, which is a precursor to heat stroke.
Then there are those medical conditions that can cause dogs to pant for a variety of reasons that can be hormonal, structural, infectious or otherwise. Cushing disease, thyroid disease, cardiac valve disease and brachycephalic syndrome (the problem all dogs with smushed faces suffer from) can all cause panting. Certain drugs can do this too (corticosteroids like prednisone, for example).
The bottom line is this: Don’t stress too much about panting; it’s usually normal. But make sure that when panting gets louder than it’s ever been, more vigorous than usual, or happens at times of day you’ve never noticed panting before, it’s time to ask your veterinarian to look into it more deeply.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.