Several years ago, my then 7 year-old Shetland Sheepdog got into my mom’s suitcase and ate some vitamins, which promptly made her throw up…a lot. So we rushed her to the vet. Listening to her as we drove, I swore I heard that tell-tale rattle when fluid is in the lungs. But when we go to the vet they said she was fine and sent us home. I wasn’t so sure, and, hours later, she was barely moving. Back to the vet, and this time they listened to me when I said I was sure I had heard rattling and they took x-rays. Sure enough, she had aspiration pneumonia. She was on fluids for several days and honestly, her health has never been the same since.
I believe dog owners need to be aware of the risk of aspiration pneumonia, so I talked to Denise Petryk, DVM, Trupanion’s Director of Veterinary Services about aspiration pneumonia and she provided the following answers, so that you can learn from our awful experience.
What is aspiration pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs. To understand aspiration pneumonia, we need to first look at how the lungs are built.
In the most simplistic sense our lungs are made up of three main parts:
- Airways or the bronchial tree that are the highways for air to enter and leave our body
- Blood vessels that pick up the oxygen for the body and expel waste gases
- The supportive interstitium, the meaty tissues of the lung in which the airways and blood vessels lie
Inflammation in the lungs causes swelling or fluid buildup within the lung—or rarely, around the lung. The inflammation results in hypoventilation, the inability to breathe deeply and freely, and hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, to the pet.
Aspiration pneumonia is a pneumonia that happens when “something goes down the wrong tube.” The “right tube” is the esophagus because when all is working correctly, we are supposed to swallow and have water or food go down our esophagus into our stomach. The “wrong tube” relative to aspiration pneumonia is the trachea. When our body is working correctly, only air should go down our trachea, not water, food, chew toy bits, vomit, or excessive saliva.
What are the common causes?
Common causes of aspiration pneumonia are:
- Diseases like megaesophagus and myasthenia gravis
- Drinking and eating too quickly and the subsequent aspiration of food or water
- Excessive vomiting with ultimately some of the vomitus being inhaled
- Being critically ill and very weak therefore having decreased swallowing reflexes, a weakened immune system, the inability to hold their head up, the inability to vomit “out” of the mouth
- Certain cancers
Can you prevent any of these causes?
Yes and no. Sometimes it is just bad luck when water or food for some pets is aspirated but here are some tips you can follow to reduce risks:
- Elevate food and water bowls to a height most appropriate for the height of your pet (To determine the correct height of a raised bowl, measure your dog from the floor to their lower chest level. The dog should not have to reach or bend to get the food. If you are still unsure about the appropriate height for an elevated bowl, consult your veterinarian)
- Look for an interactive slow dog feed bowl, many specialty bowls are available that can help slow your dog’s pace of eating and keep them entertained
- Develop a trusting relationship with your veterinarian so that when your dog is showing any signs of illness, you do not hesitate to go in and get a check-up
- Have pet medical insurance to give you the peace of mind and ability to pay for top quality testing and the best care when your pet is showing signs of illness
See a veterinarian if your dog is acting sick, especially if your pet is young or old, has been ill before, vomits more than 3 times, is vomiting and lethargic or weak.
What are the early signs?
Each dog will be different, so it’s important to have a veterinarian you trust to take your pet in at the first sign of symptoms. Some signs include:
- loss of appetite
- loss of energy
- excessive panting
- shallow breathing
- nostril flare with breathing
- sleeping more
- noise when breathing
What are the treatment options?
Each time will be different depending on the case. X-rays and blood tests are often needed and sometimes advanced tests including cultures, tracheal or bronchial washes, or an endoscopy. Treatment options include: oxygen, fluids for hydration, a nebulizer, coupage, antibiotics, antitussives, and pain killers.
What are the long-term effects?
It depends on the case. Megaesophagus and myasthenia gravis can be lifelong debilitating diseases. Mild aspiration pneumonia will or should have no long-term effects. Talk to your veterinarian about the short and long term prognosis.
A Final Note
As Dr. Petryk points out, having a good relationship with your vet is important, as is having good pet insurance so you can afford these emergencies. My own advice? If you feel there is something wrong with your dog and your vet won’t listen, go to another vet, go to several, until one listens. You know your dog better than anyone else and can tell when something is up.
About the Author
Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of, A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.
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