Dyspnea in Small Mammals

Dyspnea in Small Mammals

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Dyspnea is labored or difficult breathing and is also referred to as respiratory distress or shortness of breath. It is primarily an indication of insufficient amounts of oxygen in the circulating blood. Dyspnea can occur during inspiration (breathing in) or expiration (breathing out) and may be caused by the following:

  • Heart disease or heart failure
  • Lung disease
  • Tumors or cancer in the lung
  • Pneumonia
  • Obstructions (something that occludes the airway)
  • Trauma
  • Bleeding into the lungs or chest

    The potential causes of dyspnea are numerous, and some can also cause a cough, although this is not always the case.

    What to Watch For

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue


    Diagnostic tests are needed to determine why your pet is having trouble breathing. A complete medical history and physical examination are also necessary, with emphasis on stethoscope examination (auscultation) of the heart and lungs. For most small mammals, this may be all that is necessary to determine a course of treatment. For other animals, additional tests may be needed, including:

  • A chest radiograph (X-ray)
  • An electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Ultrasound examination of the heart (echocardiogram)
  • Laboratory (blood) tests


    The treatment for dyspnea depends upon the underlying cause. Often treatment may be initiated to help stabilize your pet and allow him to breath easier while tests are being performed to determine the underlying cause. Initial treatment for dyspnea may include:

  • Hospitalization with administration of oxygen
  • Minimizing stress
  • Thoracentesis - drainage with a needle of fluid that has accumulated around the lungs
  • Diuretics - a "water-pill" such as the drug furosemide (Lasix)or spironolactone

    Home Care and Prevention

    Difficult breathing is usually an emergency and you should see your veterinarian immediately. Optimal treatment for dyspnea requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical. Administer all veterinary prescribed medication(s) as directed and be certain to alert your veterinarian if you are experiencing problems treating your pet.

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