After playing fetch with your pup, you’ve probably noticed her breathing quickly with her mouth open and her tongue hanging out. Panting is a dog’s way of saying, “I’m having a great time!”—but it can also be a warning sign that something serious is going on.
Sometimes, there isn’t one answer behind your dog’s behavior, in this case we’ve gathered a few possibilities to answer the question, “Why do dogs pant?”:
Your dog is hot, excited or thirsty: Your dog wears a fur coat around all year, regardless of whether it’s snowing or sweltering. Unlike humans, who are covered in sweat glands, dogs can only sweat through the pads of their feet. “The primary way your dog cools down is by panting, which circulates air and dissipates heat from her body,” says Dr. Wendy Hauser, a veterinarian with over 30 years of experience. “Panting is a normal reaction to physical activity.”
But if you’ve been playing in hot weather, panting can also be a sign of heatstroke, which is a medical emergency. Other signs of heatstroke include a bright red tongue, thick and sticky saliva, weakness and vomiting. Bring her into the shade or inside immediately if you suspect heatstroke. Give her cool water to drink, and contact your veterinarian if her symptoms worsen.
To encourage your dog to drink more regularly during warm weather, go for a pet water fountain. Consider the Pioneer Pet Stainless Steel Drinking Fountain, which holds 60 or 96 ounces of fresh, circulating water. Dogs are naturally drawn to flowing water and tend to drink more than they would if the water was stagnant in a bowl. The stainless steel reservoir keeps bacteria from building up, and a charcoal filter rids tap water of chlorine, sediment, volatile organic compounds and odor.
Your dog is anxious: Your dog can’t say, “I’m really nervous!”, but his panting tongue is often a clue that he doesn’t feel emotionally settled. If your dog is anxious, there will be other behavioral signs, such as pacing, hiding, whining and yawning. Other signs of nervousness include submissive body posture, including lack of eye contact and low, crouching stance and uncontrollable urination.
If you suspect your pet is anxious, talk to your veterinarian about behavioral modification or treatment with medication.
Your dog is in pain: Dogs may pant when they are in pain. Other signs of pain include whimpering, restless shifting and licking a specific part of the body. “I once had a patient, a 12-year-old Labrador, who was constantly panting and restless, especially at night,” says Dr. Hauser. “Upon examination, I discovered a broken tooth! His abnormal behavior immediately stopped after I performed a root canal on the tooth—the poor guy was simply in a ton of pain!”
Your dog has an underlying, chronic medical condition: In addition to pain, there are many medical conditions that can cause a dog to pant, such as anemia, pneumonia or endocrine disorders like Cushing’s diseases, which is when her adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. Dr. Hauser says underlying conditions should be ruled out by your veterinarian if your dog is displaying other unusual physical symptoms, such as very pale gums, increased water consumption, extreme lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea or decreased physical activity.
Your dog has another acute medical problem: If the panting comes on suddenly for no discernable reason—watch out! Acute panting can be a warning sign that your dog has ingested something poisonous or is having an allergic reaction. In these scenarios, she’s panting because she’s having trouble breathing. Especially if she’s having other symptoms, like vomiting or acting listless, the best course of action is to transport her to an emergency vet.
Your dog’s overweight: Panting is often a side effect of your dog being overweight. In this scenario, panting is a sign that she is suffering from the cardiovascular ramifications of carrying around excess body weight.
It’s obvious if a dog is obese, but many people mistake an overweight dog for a healthy one. One easy way to check your dog’s weight is to feel her ribs; while you shouldn’t be able to see her ribs (that’s too thin!), you should able to feel each rib when you gently run your fingers over her rib cage. If her ribs are buried under a thick layer of fat, she’s likely overweight.
Extra weight doesn’t just stress your dog’s cardiovascular system—it causes lasting damage to her organs, joints and bones; lowers her immune functioning; and increases the need for future medications and surgeries. “A dog that is a normal, healthy weight will live up to 25% longer than an obese one,” points out Dr. Hauser. Meet with your veterinarian to determine if your dog’s weight is an issue and how to safely and effectively put her on a diet.
Your dog is getting older: It’s not uncommon for older dogs to pant more than younger ones, for all the reasons listed above. Older dogs are more likely to be anxious. “As dogs age, they tend to have decreased sensory input from their environment,” says Dr. Hauser. “Decreased hearing and vision often result in more fearful behaviors, including panting.”
Older dogs are more likely to suffer from the underlying triggers that can cause panting, such as being overweight and chronic pain. “For example, arthritis in dogs increases with age and is a significant reason that older dogs pant,” explains Dr. Hauser. Your veterinarian can help you change your older dog’s routine to ensure she’s the healthiest and happiest she can be as she ages.