[Updated February 9, 2018]
From Tufts August 2010 Issue.
Snoring has been an age-old problem in dogs and people. In both instances, it can be a harmless nuisance or a sign of an anatomical problem. “In most cases, a dog’s snoring is not a major cause for alarm,” says Elizabeth Rozanski, assistant professor of emergency and critical care at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “The key is to determine what is considered normal for your dog.
“If a dog has snored his entire life, we usually don’t need to worry about it. But if he’s always been a quiet sleeper and then suddenly starts snoring, we need to be concerned with more serious problems,” Dr. Rozanski says. “For instance, a dog may have developed a tumor or small polyp in the back of his throat that is causing an obstruction.”
Snoring results from altered airflow through the nasal passages. “When there is narrowing either from extra tissue or from the dog’s head position, the air moving in makes an audible sound,” Dr. Rozanski says.
Simply placing the dog’s head on a pillow or changing his position during sleep can eliminate occasional snoring. For snoring worsened by obesity, regular exercise and a controlled diet will help a dog lose unwanted pounds.
Sleep Disorders in Dogs
While snoring isn’t usually considered life-threatening, it can be cause for concern because, in rare cases, untreated dogs may develop a form of sleep apnea — one that differs from the condition among humans. The disorder, which seems to affect bulldogs primarily, is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep that can cause the dogs to wake up repeatedly. “The dogs are not going to die, but just like people, they’re not getting a good night’s sleep.” Dr. Rozanski says.
Many brachycephalic, or short-nosed, breeds suffer from a condition known as an elongated soft palate. The tissue at the back of throat is responsible for closing nasal passages and airways when a dog swallows. If the soft palate is too long, it can interfere with breathing.
Dogs with elongated soft palates generally have a history of snoring and noisy breathing while awake. Signs usually become apparent early in life. Some dogs gag or choke when swallowing. They may also exhibit cyanosis — a blue tongue and gums from lack of oxygen — and intolerance to exercise, especially during hot weather.
Veterinarians often recommend minor surgery for these dogs. While a dog is anesthetized, the veterinarian will shorten the soft palate by using a scalpel or laser to trim the excess tissue. Some dogs with elongated soft palate also have narrow nostrils (called stenotic nares), and the veterinarian may elect to widen these to allow easier breathing.
Monitor Your Dog Closely After Nasal Surgery
After the procedure, patients remain at the veterinary clinic for at least 24 hours, where they are monitored closely for bleeding, difficulty in breathing or other complications. The prognosis is favorable. Owners usually notice a marked decrease in snoring and an improvement in their dog’s energy and activity.
The surgery is not essential for dogs who have noisy breathing alone or snore only occasionally, but is a good option for those who snore heavily, have excessive daytime sleepiness or cannot exercise normally. “In these cases, we will absolutely do the surgery to help them be more comfortable,” Dr. Rozanski says.
Soft palate resection performed by an experienced surgeon results in a significant improvement in quality of life in the vast majority of dogs.
Allergies Can Also Interfere with Dogs’ Breathing
As with humans, there are various reasons dogs snore. In addition to elongated soft palate, which occurs in brachycephalic breeds, allergies to pollen and dust can result in excessive mucus in the airway or tissue swelling that impairs normal breathing.
If a dog snores because of allergens, keep his bedding clean and vacuum regularly. If possible, take him for walks when pollen levels are low and traffic is light to eliminate irritation caused by automobile exhaust. Short-term use of allergy medication, such as Benadryl, hydralazine or prednisone, may be helpful during the spring and summer when many plants bloom, but it isn’t generally recommended for long-term use.
Karen Lee Stevens is a writer in Santa Barbara, California.