Disheartening diagnosis

Posted: Sunday, December 28, 2003

When some people hear the word "wheezer" the teenage rock band may come to mind, but for a few unfortunate dog owners the word means something entirely different laryngeal paralysis.

"It's not very common," said Jayne Hempstead, a veterinarian at Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic. "We only see around five cases a year, but the condition is probably under reported."

Hempstead said laryngeal paralysis may manifest itself in two different ways.

"It can be a degenerative condition developing in older dogs, which is how I've mostly seen it," she said. "Dogs that are perfectly normal their entire lives may start to show signs at around 8 to 10 years old."

The condition can happen in any breed, but is especially common in Labrador retrievers, springer spaniels, setters, greyhounds and Afghans.

"We see it in labs a lot," said Hempstead

The other way that the condition shows up is congenitally in puppies. Many mushers have seen the laryngeal paralysis come through their kennel at one time or another, and it is in dog mushing circles that it is known informally as "wheezer."

Many mushers attribute it to breeding two blue-eyed dogs together. Not to say that's impossible, but Hempstead believes it is an improbable cause of the condition.

"There's no evidence to support that," she said. "It's definitely in huskies and husky mixes, and it's a recessive gene for sure, but it's probably more complex than just breeding blue-eyed dogs."

In addition to Siberian huskies, congenital laryngeal paralysis also is prevalent in bouvier des Flanders and bull terriers.

Regardless of the cause, the symptoms are the same. There is a failure of the laryngeal cartilages to open during inhalation, creating a partial or complete airway obstruction. "It narrows the airway," said Hempstead.

Dogs suffering from laryngeal paralysis will typically eat well, be active and seem happy, but signs of the condition include noisy or raspy breathing that becomes worse as the dog gets more active.

"When relaxed or sleeping, air may flow normal," said Hempstead. "But as the dog moves around, gets excited or gets to playing it will cause more narrowing and the dog will start breathing hard."

Not only exercise, but also heat, humidity and obesity can make the paralysis worse. In extreme episodes of restricted breathing, dogs may suffer asphyxia. Gasping and gagging for air, they may collapse, pass out or in worst case scenarios even die.

"Surgery is really the only option for relief," said Hempstead.

Surgery can pose many choices itself, depending on several factors such as the dogs' breed, severity of the condition and owner's financial commitment.

However, the two basic surgical approaches commonly done to remove or reposition the laryngeal cartilage are extralaryngeal (from the outside of the throat) and intralaryngeal (usually through the mouth).

"Going in orally, through the throat, is the least invasive," said Hempstead.

Regardless of which option is chosen, dogs diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis should not be used for breeding since the condition is inherited. Until surgery and during post-operative recuperation, dogs should be made as comfortable as possible, so as not to aggravate the situation causing more serious complications to arise.

Laryngeal paralysis can be a disheartening diagnosis for dog owners, but surgery is usually successful in relieving the symptoms, providing a better quality of life for the affected dog.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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