Why Is My German Shepherd Breathing Heavy?

Categorized as Health
German Shepherd dog, laying on a wooden floor.

Have you noticed your German Shepherd panting more than usual lately? Excessive and labored breathing in your dog can be worrying. As a responsible pet parent, it’s important to understand the possible reasons behind your German Shepherd’s heavy breathing and what you can do about it.

German Shepherds are known for being active, high-energy dogs. It’s normal for them to breathe heavier after exercise or when they’re hot. However, consistent heavy breathing even at rest may indicate an underlying health issue that requires veterinary attention. This article covers the common causes, warning signs, and treatment options if your German Shepherd is struggling to breathe properly.

Here’s a quick answer:

German Shepherds can breathe heavily from normal causes like exercise, heat, or anxiety. However, persistent heavy breathing or respiratory distress can signify conditions like infections, allergies, heart disease, injuries, or poisoning. Labored breathing, pale gums, wheezing, distended abdomen, or collapse warrant urgent vet evaluation to diagnose and treat the underlying cause. Supportive care can ease symptoms.

Normal vs Abnormal Breathing

Before jumping to any conclusions, you first need to know what’s considered normal breathing for your German Shepherd. Take notice of your dog’s resting respiratory rate when they are calm and relaxed. The average resting rate is around 20 to 30 breaths per minute. Panting is also normal dog behavior to cool down.

You should be concerned if:

  • Your dog’s belly moves dramatically in and out with each breath
  • Nostrils flare during inhalation
  • You notice grunting, wheezing or other noises
  • Your dog shows signs of respiratory distress

If the heavy breathing persists even at rest or your dog displays additional symptoms, it likely signifies an underlying problem requiring veterinary diagnosis and care.

Common Causes of Heavy Breathing

There are various illnesses and conditions that can make your German Shepherd breathe heavily or have difficulty breathing. Here are some of the most common culprits:

Respiratory Infections

Bacterial and viral infections affecting the lungs, windpipe, nose or throat often lead to breathing issues. These include kennel cough, pneumonia, and canine influenza. Your dog may show flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge and lethargy along with rapid or strained breathing.


Inhalant allergies to pollen, mold, dust mites or other irritants can trigger asthma-like symptoms in dogs. This results in airway inflammation, bronchospasms and heavy breathing episodes. Skin allergies may also contribute in some cases.

Heart Disease

Cardiac diseases like dilated cardiomyopathy, valve disorders and arrhythmias can manifest with breathing difficulty, especially with activity or exercise. Fluid may back up in the lungs due to the heart’s inability to pump blood efficiently.


Excess weight puts more pressure on the lungs and diaphragm, impairing normal breathing mechanics. Obese dogs often pant excessively and get worn out easily. Other related health issues also come into play.


Low red blood cell levels reduce the body’s capability to transport oxygen properly. Your dog tries to compensate by breathing faster in an attempt to get more oxygen to the tissues.

Heat Stroke

Extreme hot weather coupled with exercise, anxiety or poor ventilation can cause heat stroke. The internal body temperature elevates abnormally high, causing slammed breathing mechanisms. This is a medical emergency.


Blunt injuries to the back, ribs or lungs as well as penetrating wounds can lead to painful breathing. Fractured ribs are a common cause of post-traumatic breathing trouble.


Inhaled smoke, dust or chemical fumes initiate a reflex reaction causing rapid breathing. Certain toxins such as ethylene glycol in antifreeze poisoning also directly impact respiration.

As you can see, many conditions can make your German Shepherd struggle for air. Getting a proper diagnosis is key before proceeding with any treatment plan. Let’s go over some warning signs not to ignore.

Concerning Signs and Symptoms

While individual diseases have their own unique indicators, these general signs with respiratory distress warrant an urgent vet visit:

  • Pale or bluish gums and tongue
  • Panting without cooling effect
  • Abdominal efforts with breathing
  • Breathing with an open mouth
  • Unrelenting coughing
  • Wheezing or whistling sounds
  • Collapse or loss of consciousness
  • Extreme lethargy and weakness

If your German Shepherd shows any of these acute symptoms along with breathing issues, get them evaluated by a vet immediately as it suggests oxygen deprivation. Waiting too long can lead to complications and even sudden death in severe cases. Don’t take chances – seek help right away!

Diagnostic Tests and Evaluation

Veterinarians use a combination of diagnostic tests to pinpoint the exact cause of your German Shepherd’s breathing problems.

Medical History

Expect your vet to ask detailed questions about your dog’s health, breed background, living environment, diet, exercise routine and more. Information about the breathing difficulty onset, duration and associated clinical signs are also pertinent.

Physical Exam

Your vet thoroughly examines your dog from head to paws, including taking their temperature, listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, checking mucus membranes and assessing abdominal organs. They analyze your dog’s overall condition, vital parameters and check for any abnormalities indicating respiratory disease.

Diagnostic Imaging

X-rays and ultrasound scans of the chest provide visualization of the heart, lungs, bronchi, blood vessels and nearby bones. This is useful for detecting fluid buildup, foreign objects, masses or enlargement issues contributing to breathing troubles.

Blood Tests

Complete blood work determines cell counts, blood gases, biochemistry profile and markers of infection/inflammation. Low blood oxygen levels are directly linked with respiratory disease. Certain profiles associated with specific conditions can point to an underlying diagnosis.

Other Tests

Further diagnostics like bronchoscopy, ECG, urine tests, cytology or biopsy may be warranted depending on each case. Vets also screen for underlying conditions like heart disease and test for tick-borne diseases.

Once your vet determines the exact reason behind your German Shepherd’s breathing issues, they outline the most suitable treatment plan. Let’s go over the general management options.

Treatment Options

Treatment focuses on the specific illness causing breathing difficulty in your German Shepherd but generally includes:

  • Medications
  • Antibiotics for bacterial infections
  • Cough suppressants and bronchodilators to open airways
  • Antihistamines and steroids to reduce allergic reactions
  • Diuretics to clear excess lung fluid
  • Blood pressure and heart medications
  • Oxygen Therapy
    Severe respiratory distress requires oxygen administration, usually with a face mask or flow-by setup. This immediately assists oxygen transport to distribute throughout the body and brain.
  • Surgery
    Surgeries to remove obstructions or masses pressing on airways. Certain traumatic injuries also require surgical intervention to resolve breathing impairment and relieve pain.
  • Lifestyle Management
    Customized lifestyle adjustments to improve quality of life are key:
  • Weight loss plan for overweight dogs
  • Exercise restrictions in medical cases
  • Stress and temperature regulation
  • Avoidance of environmental triggers

Your vet advises on suitable lifestyle changes particular to your dog’s situation. Strictly follow medication directions, home care instructions and ongoing monitoring guidelines shared by your vet.

What’s the Prognosis?

The outlook for your German Shepherd depends on the specific illness causing breathing troubles, promptness of treatment and response to therapy. With aggressive support care in early stages, dogs can make a full recovery and live a relatively normal life after most respiratory crises.

In longstanding disease cases, some permanent lung changes may persist requiring lifelong medication and management. Unfortunately conditions like cancer, heart failure and severe pneumonia carry a more serious prognosis. But quality of life can be improved with supportive treatment.

The bottom line is to identify breathing red flags early and seek veterinary assistance if your German Shepherd seems to struggle getting air properly. Partner with your vet to relieve distressing symptoms and give your dog the best chance possible! Monitor progress closely and keep all follow up appointments.

With attentive care and adherence to management protocols, you have an excellent opportunity to successfully resolve abnormal breathing issues in your beloved German Shepherd.

Frequently Asked Questions

To wrap up, let’s go over answers to some common questions dog owners have regarding heavy breathing in their German Shepherds:

How can I tell if my German Shepherd’s heavy breathing is normal or abnormal?

Look for a faster than normal resting respiratory rate along with increased effort, such as an exaggerated abdomen push, open mouth panting, or chest/stomach retractions. Distressing symptoms like wheezing, coughing or collapse suggest a serious issue needing prompt veterinary care.

My German Shepherd pants heavily in the car. Is this normal?

Heavy car panting is quite common in dogs due to anxiety, excitement or motion sickness. Ensure proper temperature regulation in your car and give them access to water. Mild sedatives can help if it’s anxiety related. Check with your vet.

Can a puppy breathe heavily while sleeping?

It’s normal for puppies to have slightly faster relaxed breathing rates than adult dogs. However, sustained heavyweight breathing or respiratory distress while asleep warrants medical assessment to rule out infection or other sickness.

How can I best help my senior German Shepherd struggling with breathing problems?

Have your veterinarian thoroughly evaluate your senior dog to diagnose any age-related illness causing respiratory impairment. Follow their treatment plan closely including lifestyle adjustments to improve breathing capacity and make things easier on your old dog’s system.

The sooner you identify and address abnormal breathing in your German Shepherd, the better chance you have for successful intervention. Trust your instincts if something seems off with your dog’s respiration, and immediately get veterinary assistance for relief. With proper management, dogs can thrive despite many chronic breathing conditions.

By Andrew Garf

Andrew Garf has loved dogs, especially German Shepherds, since he was 10 years old. Though he also loves burgers, training dogs is his real passion. That's why he created the website TrainYourGSD.com - to help dog owners learn how to properly train, care for, and bond with their German Shepherd dogs.