Laryngeal Paralysis



by Dr. Dawn Burke

Laryngeal paralysis is a condition that affects older golden retrievers and other large breed dogs, particularly the Labrador retriever. There are a few breeds like the Bouvier des Flandres that have a hereditary form of the disease which can affect young dogs. In golden retrievers, laryngeal paralysis is an acquired disease in which the larynx does not function properly. The cause of this condition is unknown. It has been speculated that hypothyroidism may play a role in some cases, but that has not been proven. Dogs that are overweight have a higher risk of developing laryngeal paralysis.

To understand the disease, we first must understand the function of the larynx. In addition to being the voice box, the larynx protects the respiratory tract by closing the airway when the dog eats or drinks, thus keeping water and food out of the lungs. The larynx opens wider when we take a deep breath allowing more air into the lungs. In laryngeal paralysis the muscles of the larynx fail to work properly, tending to flutter instead of opening the larynx wider when the dog takes a deep breath. When this occurs, the dog does not receive the air that it needs resulting in stress and anxiety, which causes the dog to breathe harder and faster which results in more stress and anxiety. The rapid, labored respiration can cause the larynx to swell making breathing even more difficult. In severe cases, the larynx can close down so much that it acts as an obstruction. The lack of oxygen causes the dog’s gums and tongue to turn blue, and the ineffective respiratory efforts lead to overheating and fluid accumulation in the lungs. This can result in death if not treated promptly.

Laryngeal paralysis does not come on suddenly. There is usually a fairly long history of respiratory signs such as panting, noisy breathing, gasping, and even respiratory distress. The dog may show signs of exercise intolerance and breathe more noisily during exercise. Heat and humidity and very cold temperatures can also trigger these signs. Since the larynx cannot close properly when the dog swallows, some dogs may develop aspiration pneumonia.

It is important to recognize the early signs of laryngeal paralysis. Discuss any change in voice, exercise intolerance, excessive panting, or noisy breathing with your veterinarian. Early detection can prevent the respiratory crisis and death that can result from this condition. If your veterinarian suspects laryngeal paralysis, several tests will need to be done to confirm the diagnosis. Since the disease usually affects senior dogs, a minimum database including a complete blood count (CBC), chemistry profile, thyroid level and urinalysis should be performed to evaluate the dog’s overall health. Chest radiographs to screen for pneumonia and radiographs of the throat to check for masses will be done. Once this is completed, your veterinarian will sedate or lightly anesthetize your dog to visually evaluate the larynx and watch its movements while the dog breathes. In a normal larynx, the folds open as the dog inhales and relax as the dog exhales. With laryngeal paralysis, the folds just flutter as the dog breathes.

Once the diagnosis is made, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options. If your dog is overweight, a diet is in order. Stressful situations, over-exercise, heat and humidity, and extreme cold should be avoided. If the symptoms are not severe, these measures may be all that is necessary to manage the condition, although close monitoring for worsening respiratory problems is advised. A surgical procedure called a “laryngeal tie back” is the treatment of choice for severe laryngeal paralysis. For this procedure, the surgeon sutures (ties back) one side of the larynx so that a portion of the airway remains open at all times. Because the larynx is prone to swelling and forming granulation tissue when handled, this surgery is best performed by an experienced surgeon (preferably a board certified surgeon) in a hospital with 24-hour care so the dog can be carefully monitored after surgery. About one-third of dogs experience post-surgical complications with aspiration pneumonia being the most common complication. If severe swelling of the larynx occurs, the surgeon may elect to do a temporary tracheotomy to manage this problem. It is possible for dogs to die during surgery or the post-operative period. These complications are reduced in the hands of a skilled surgeon. While surgery is not with out its risks, the long term results for most dogs are good and they are able to live happy and normal lives, which would not have been possible in many cases without surgery.

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Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue, Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1985.
Rescue and Adoption services for Golden Retrievers from the six New England states.
Address: P.O. Box 808, Hudson, MA 01749-0808
Hotline: 978-568-9700


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