If you have a dog, you know what panting looks like: it’s when your dog breathes in and out rapidly with the tongue hanging out. Typically, your dog pants after being active. You may play a rousing game of fetch with your dog, and then both relax in the shade. While you fan yourself and drink a cool glass of lemonade, your dog pants and slurps water out of a bowl. You’re actually doing the same thing: using your body’s natural, instinctual functions to cool off.
Most people know that panting helps their dogs stay cool. But have you ever wondered just how exactly panting works? Read on to learn how panting helps regulate body temperature, and the difference between normal panting and signs of illness or injury.
What’s the point of panting?
Have you noticed that your dog pants on warmer days, and after physical exertion? That’s because panting is your dog’s primary means of thermoregulation. Thermoregulation is the ability of an organism to keep its body temperature within certain boundaries (source). Human beings thermoregulate by sweating (and sometimes panting, too); as we heat up, our bodies produce perspiration, which evaporates and cools our skin, lowering our overall body temperature.
It’s a common misunderstanding that dogs don’t sweat at all. Actually, dogs do have sweat glands on their paw pads and nose, and will sweat to help regulate skin function and release heat in those areas. (Things can get stinky for them when it comes to sweat, too!) However, sweat plays a very small part in their thermoregulation.
Think of it this way: the nose and paws make up a very small percentage of a dog’s overall surface area, most of which is covered with fur. In order to cool their whole, furry body, dogs need a more efficient way to expel heat. That’s where panting comes in.
How panting works
When your dog needs to cool down, her tongue may hang out of her mouth, and her breathing will speed up. Dogs have a typical resting respiratory rate of 18 to 34 breaths per minute, but this rate can get significantly faster while panting. Panting moves hot, moisture-filled air in and out, increasing moisture evaporation in the mucous membranes of the nasal passages, mouth, and lungs. This cools the body from the inside out (source).
The speed and pattern of your dog’s panting will change depending on the needs of her body. According to a report by veterinarian Jerilee Zezula, “Inhalation and exhalation first occurs through the nose entirely (rate is increased), then inhalation through the nose and exhalation through the nose and mouth, and, finally, both inhalation and exhalation through the nose and mouth with the tongue further extended as cooling needs demand.” In other words: the hotter your dog is, the faster and harder she may pant!
You may have noticed that sometimes your dog will pause in her panting to take a deep breath, then continue with short, rapid breathing. That’s because panting is not an effective means of exchanging air in the lungs. That panting pause is your dog taking a good respiratory breath, helping to maintain oxygen levels in the blood.
Panting moves hot, moisture-filled air in and out, increasing moisture evaporation and cooling your dog from the inside out.
When panting is abnormal
Most of the time, panting is a regular part of your dog’s body functions. But panting can also be a sign of injury or illness. Call your vet if your dog exhibits:
- Panting that starts suddenly without physical exertion, seemingly “out of nowhere”
- Panting that is constant and intense
- Panting accompanied by wheezing, coughing, or other unusual sounds
- Panting accompanied by excessive drool and lethargy, which are signs of heat stroke
- Panting accompanied by a pale or blue-ish tongue and gums, a sign your pet may not be getting enough oxygen
The best way to tell the difference between plain old panting and something more serious is to simply pay attention to your dog. Notice her breathing rate while she’s resting, and after a normal exercise session. The better you get to know your dog’s regular breathing patterns, the more able you’ll be to spot inconsistencies.
It’s pretty cool the way your dog’s body works to cool itself off with panting! The next time your dog pants after a romp in the yard, sit back and marvel at her amazing anatomy.
Featured image via Flickr/xlibber