Over my almost four-decade veterinary career, I’ve seen hundreds of small dogs who made a sound like they were going to choke to death. I’ve also owned a couple who would make a “honking sound” including a current one, our little canine cocktail Quixote. The culprit is something called “collapsing trachea.”
Found with equal severity in males and females, collapsing trachea can occur in puppies as a heredity problem. This condition is one that usually worsens with age, and is worse when a pet is overweight or obese or has conditions that affect normal breathing (such as allergies).
A normal trachea is like a radiator hose or reinforced garden hose with regularly spaced rings of cartilage that keep the airway open, and a common diameter from the upper airways to the lungs. In collapsing trachea, one of more of the cartilage rings are weak, the trachea becomes flat, and respiration becomes very difficult. For an analogy, think of having your nose held shut, having to breathe through a straw, and now somebody pinches the straw flat. You got it. Shortness of breath and its companion, panic, come quickly.
Most affected dogs can breathe normally some or most of the time, but the trachea collapses when the pet is vigorously exercising or gets excited (company at the door?). More than once I’ve had a pet get nervous at the veterinary hospital, have her trachea collapse, and then pass out from a lack of oxygen. When that happens, it takes everyone’s breath away!
Most of the time we encourage the pet owner to have the pet lose weight. We will prescribe a cough suppressant if the hacking and honking is really bad, and occasionally refer to a very skilled surgeon for surgery to strengthen the collapsing area of the trachea.