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If Your Dog's Bark Suddenly Changes, It Could Be the Sign of a Health Problem

Christie Long is a small animal veterinarian with 10 years experience in medicine, surgery, and acupuncture. As PetCoach's Chief Veterinarian, she directs a global team of veterinarians fielding inquiries regarding all aspects of pet car...

Pay attention to your pup's bark — it can tell you a lot about their health

Hear something different in your dog’s bark? Don’t ignore it or brush it off as your imagination. You know your dog, and you know when something is different. There are some very serious diseases that start innocently enough, as just a change in the tone and/or quality of your dog’s bark. Get it checked out! Here are a few of the reasons your dog's bark may have changed

Laryngeal paralysis

Laryngeal paralysis, or “lar par” as many veterinarians refer to it (mainly because we’ll take any opportunity to save time by shortening long and difficult-to-pronounce terms), tends to occur in older large-breed dogs. For reasons we don’t completely understand, the muscles that open and close the cartilage that covers the ingress to the trachea don’t fully retract. The disease usually affects only one of the paired cartilage structures at first, but can ultimately affect both sides.

A couple of things happen when a dog gets lar par. In the beginning, the only change may be that the bark becomes harsh and a whistling sound can be noticed, especially during periods of exertion and heavy panting, because the sluggish movement of the cartilage structures makes it difficult for air to move past them and into the lungs. Dogs that are affected to the point of severe breathing difficulty may need surgery to “tie back” one of the cartilage structures, in order to ensure that the airway stays open.

“Something” in back of the mouth or throat

Obstructive airway disease is a broad term that is often applied to situations when we believe that “something” is obstructing the back of the throat, the opening to the trachea or the trachea itself. As you might imagine, anything that obstructs the flow of air across and through this area has the potential to change the sounds associated with it, whether it be barking or panting.

When we identify the potential for obstruction, the $64,000 question becomes, OK, exactly what is obstructing? One possibility is a foreign object that your dog swallowed in a moment of poor judgment, such as a piece of a toy or rawhide treat, that ultimately got stuck on the way out of the oral cavity.

A growth that invades this area can also change the noise that air makes when it passes through. Any growth has the potential to be either benign or malignant, and anything that is growing rapidly here can have serious consequences. For this reason, you should always be motivated to investigate sudden changes in the sounds that your dog makes, as time is of the essence in dealing with either of these problems.

Myasthenia gravis

Myasthenia gravis is a relatively rare disease that can occur in dogs (and cats) and is either inherited or develops later in life. Dogs that have the inherited form of the disease have a deficiency in the amount of receptors that allow sodium into muscle cells, and their muscles don’t contract properly. This causes generalized weakness that often results in collapse after exercise. Dogs that acquire the disease later in life (as adults) seem to have developed antibodies to these receptors, resulting destruction of the receptors by the body for reasons we don’t understand.

For purposes of this discussion, it’s likely that acquired myasthenia gravis is more pertinent, since we’re talking about sudden changes in the voice (or bark) of your dog. Myasthenia gravis can result in a number of complications, including head and neck weakness, aspiration pneumonia, megaesophagus (the inability to move food down the esophagus and into the stomach), weakness and overall fatigue. Treatment can help substantially, so be tuned in to changes in your dog’s bark and get him checked out if you notice anything.

Tracheal collapse

Tracheal collapse is really another form of airway obstruction, but we’ll cover it separately because it’s such a different problem. One of my dogs has this problem, although it’s very mild in her case, and her bark isn’t affected.

Let’s talk for a minute about the anatomy of the trachea, the hollow tube that carries air from the nose and mouth and into the lungs, which is kind of a big deal. It’s a flimsy tube that has interspersed rings of cartilage that give it structure and allow it to stay open, a quality that’s important in something designed to bring air into your lungs.

Dogs with tracheal collapse seem to have drawn the short straw when it came to tracheal construction. Those rings of cartilage are weak and don’t do a great job of always holding the trachea completely open. The result in some dogs is a change to the character of the bark — again, due to that obstructive factor and the change in the way air flows into the trachea. Because tracheal collapse can be severe enough to significantly compromise breathing, it’s important to get your veterinarian’s help in characterizing your dog’s specific degree of it, but many dogs live with this problem without much difficulty.

Acute polyradiculoneuritis

Let’s all be really glad that this one is rare, as it’s the most poorly understood and most untreatable of all of the reasons your dog’s bark might be different. Sometimes called “coonhound paralysis,” acute polyradiculoneuritis has been documented to occur after exposure to raccoon saliva and after combination vaccinations were given, but most of the time no association with anything can be pinpointed. In general, it’s weird, and it’s been compared to Guillain-Barré syndrome in people (aka chronic fatigue syndrome) because of suspicion that it’s an immune-mediated disorder when it comes down to it.

This disease can progress to complete paralysis that lasts for months, and patients may need ventilation to assist with breathing. Nursing care is often intense, as these dogs may need to have their bladders manually emptied and also need feeding and drinking assistance as well as turning frequently to prevent the formation of ulcers. Although there are no miracles, most affected dogs will begin to improve on their own within a month, and completely recover in three to four months.

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