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Acute Respiratory Distress in Dogs (ARDS)

Diagnosing Severe Respiratory Issues in Canines

Do you think your dog might have acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)? If your dog recently suffered a traumatic event and seems to have difficulty breathing since the time of that event, then she may be suffering from acute respiratory distress, also known as “shock lung.”

This guide will give you some insight into what this condition is, and how it can affect your dog.

The Origins of ARDS, or Acute Respiratory Distress in Canines

The term ARDS was first introduced into the veterinary vocabulary in 1967. The condition is a sudden failure of your dog's respiratory system caused by severe inflammation and fluid accumulation in the lungs. Onset usually occurs after a dog has been subjected to a traumatic injury, and it may be very rapid. In many cases, the condition can prove fatal if treatment is not administered very quickly.

Although ARDS is most commonly caused by a traumatic injury, it may not be the only potential cause. ARDS also is caused by:

  • Pneumonia
  • Infections of the lungs or blood
  • Near drowning event
  • Inhalation of smoke or noxious fumes/gases
  • Thermal burns
  • Aspiration of gastric contents into the lungs

Unlike in humans, canines are not genetically prone to developing ARDS. In dogs, the condition can be the result of an underlying medical condition that has allowed blood, fluid, and tissue to cross over into the alveoli, or the air sacs in the lungs. When this occurs, the air sacs collapse, making it difficult to impossible for the dog to draw breath.

Physical Signs and Symptoms of ARDS in Dogs

If you think your dog may have acute respiratory distress syndrome, then you might be noticing several telltale physical signs. Here is a checklist that you can use to monitor your pet so your veterinarian will have the most comprehensive information when treating her.

  • Extreme difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Crackling noise during breathing
  • Fever
  • Nasal discharge
  • Blue-gray colored gums (cyanosis)

If you think your pet has ARDS, then take to your veterinarian at once. This is likely an emergency situation that demands immediate attention.

Veterinarian Treatment for ARDS in Dogs

Once you've arrived at your veterinarian, she may perform a thorough physical examination of your pet, as well as run a battery of lab tests, including blood tests, serum biochemical tests, urine tests, and a blood gas analysis. Your veterinarian also may order chest X-rays and an echocardiogram so she can visually examine and evaluate whether the lungs and heart are functioning properly.

If after the examination, your veterinarian diagnoses your pet with acute respiratory distress syndrome, your pet most likely will be admitted into an intensive care unit where emergency treatment can be administered. In most cases, a dog diagnosed with ARDS is kept in strict cage confinement.

Once released from care, your dog may require medication from many different groups (including pain management, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic/antifungal, among others), if the ARDS was caused by an underlying health issue.

Prescribing Medication for Dogs With ARDS

Be sure to tell your veterinarian about any medications or supplements your pet is currently taking so your veterinarian can make the best treatment decision for your pet's unique case and help reduce the risk of a potential drug interaction.

About the Author

Dr. Evan Ware

Dr. Evan Ware is a veterinary practitioner in Phoenix, Arizona. He received both his undergraduate degree in microbiology and his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from The Ohio State University.

Dr. Ware is currently the Medical Director of University Animal Hospital (VCA) and is also the owner of two other hospitals, including Laveen Veterinary Center and Phoenix Veterinary Center. His areas of expertise include orthopedic medicine and surgery, veterinary oncology and chemotherapy, and general and advanced soft-tissue surgery.