Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs

Laryngeal paralysis in dogs is a condition in which the nerves controlling the muscles and cartilage that open and close the larynx or “voicebox” no longer function properly, causing difficulty in eating or breathing.

Like humans, a dog’s larynx is located in the back of the throat and allows air to move from the mouth or nose through the larynx, and into the windpipe. The laryngeal cartilages are normally pulled open when the dog takes a breath, but laryngeal paralysis prevents the cartilages from opening and closing properly, and it becomes difficult for the dog to take in air normally.

The larynx or “voicebox” of a dog with laryngeal paralysis will look like this:

Laryngeal paralysis occurs most often in older, large breed dogs like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Siberian Huskies, and Saint Bernards. As the dog grows older, the nerves and muscles that control the laryngeal cartilages lose their ability to open and close properly. They function like old rusty hinges on a door. In most cases the cause for laryngeal paralysis is unknown.

Laryngeal paralysis can also be hereditary, and in these cases signs of breathing difficulty will usually be seen in puppies around two to six months of age. The puppies will have difficulty swallowing and breathing and may frequently gag. The breeds often affected by a hereditary form of laryngeal paralysis include Dalmatians, Bouvier des Flandres, Siberian Huskies and English Bulldogs.

The first indication of laryngeal paralysis in a dog is often a voice change where the dog’s bark sounds ‘hoarse’. The dog will make a lot of noise when breathing in, and may gag or choke when eating. The symptoms become worse in hot and humid weather and when exercising. If the condition becomes too severe the dog is unable to take in enough air and it can become a life-threatening situation.

Laryngeal tie-back surgery is the only currently known treatment for laryngeal paralysis and involves putting one or more permanent sutures in place to hold the laryngeal cartilage open so sufficient air can pass through the opening. The surgery is usually done only on one side, which provides increased airflow with less risk of inhaling food and water after the surgery.

The larynx of a dog after surgery will look like this:

Most dogs are able to resume normal breathing after the surgery, although there are risks such as bleeding during surgery or inhalation of stomach contents during surgery.

However, before proceeding with laryngeal tie-back surgery, there are some statistics you should be aware of for dogs who have undergone this procedure.

The April 15, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a review of 39 dogs who underwent laryngeal tieback surgery:

* Seven dogs developed pneumonia just after surgery. One of the seven dogs was euthanized, the other six recovered with treatment;

* Only 2 dogs were confirmed to have developed pneumonia more than 6 months after undergoing the surgery, one of which had multiple episodes of recurring pneumonia;

* 28% had persistent coughing after the surgery;

* 90% of owners felt their dog’s quality of life had improved after surgery.

Laryngeal paralysis in dogs is a very serious problem and needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible once a dog is diagnosed with the condition.

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