Dog Holding Head Up. Is He Trying To Breath?


Every dog owner knows the heartwarming joy of being greeted by a wagging tail and an upturned snout, but when your four-legged friend starts holding its head up high for an extended period, it’s enough to raise an eyebrow, if not a full-blown alarm.

Why does my dog hold his head up high?

When dogs raise their head to breathe or are gasping for air it could be a sign of respiratory issues like rhinitis and sinusitis, upper respiratory tract infection, tracheal collapse, allergic reaction, or nasal tumors. Non-respiratory causes can range from neck or back pain, seizures, cognitive dysfunction, compulsive behavior, and acid reflux to response to various stimuli.

Being an observant and proactive pet parent is crucial in understanding and addressing these issues. Not all causes are severe, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Consult with a trusted veterinarian if you notice persistent or worrisome symptoms in your dog. They may need treatment, ranging from medication to surgery, depending on the cause.

In the subsequent sections, we will dive deeper into the causes of this intriguing behavior, including both respiratory and non-respiratory reasons.

Non-Respiratory Issues

Interesting Sights, Sounds, or Smells

Dogs possess sensory abilities far beyond human capacities. Their sense of smell is nearly 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than ours. So, if your dog is holding its head up high, it could be trying to get a better grasp of a specific smell. Similarly, elevated perspectives can also help your pet observe interesting sights or sounds around them. This behavior is more pronounced when they are in a new environment with a plethora of novel stimuli. However, if this behavior is incessant or combined with signs of anxiety, it’s worth consulting with a vet.

Back or Neck Pain

Dogs with back or neck are likely to react by holding their head up. Pain in these regions is caused by conditions like IVDD, trauma, and atlantoaxial luxation. Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) occurs more commonly and dogs with this condition experience a painful condition where the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column either bulge or burst into the spinal cord space. When the disc bulges or herniates, it causes nerve compression that can lead to pain and other symptoms, such as holding the head up high.

It’s a common condition in breeds with short legs and long backs, like Dachshunds and Basset Hounds. This is a serious condition that requires immediate veterinary attention, as it can lead to permanent paralysis if left untreated.

Partial Seizures

Partial seizures aren’t necessarily life-threatening but can cause a variety of unusual physical symptoms in dogs, including holding the head high, staring, muscle tremors, or loss of consciousness. Seizures can be symptomatic of various health issues, including liver disease, or a brain tumor. If you suspect your dog is having a seizure, it’s important to keep them safe from injury and contact your vet immediately for further instructions.

Foreign Bodies Around Eye or Nose Area

Foreign bodies, such as dust, pollen, ticks, or mites, can cause a dog to raise its head high to avoid further irritation or to try to dislodge the object. If you notice your dog pawing at its face or eyes, rubbing its face against the ground, or if there’s redness, discharge, or swelling, it’s best to seek veterinary help promptly.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) is a neurobehavioral syndrome affecting aging dogs. CCD leads to a decline in cognitive function, which might cause your dog to act confused or disoriented, including head-holding. Other signs of CCD include changes in sleep patterns, house soiling, reduced interest in play, and a decreased ability to recognize familiar people and pets.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Dogs can develop compulsive behaviors as a response to anxiety, stress, or conflict. Holding their heads high could be a manifestation of OCD in dogs. If your dog shows signs of excessive grooming, tail chasing, or other repetitive behaviors, it could be experiencing OCD. In such cases, it’s crucial to consult a vet or a professional animal behaviorist.

Gastrointestinal Issues

In dogs, acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a condition where the contents of the stomach are regurgitated back into the esophagus. This can cause discomfort or pain. The dog might lift its head high in a “stargazing” posture to alleviate the discomfort. Other symptoms might include difficulty swallowing, increased salivation, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

Respiratory Issues

Rhinitis and Sinusitis

These conditions involve inflammation of the nasal passages (rhinitis) and sinus cavities (sinusitis). They can occur due to allergies, infections, dental disease, or foreign bodies.

Dogs affected by these conditions might hold their head up to breathe easier. They may also show signs of sneezing, nasal discharge, and decreased appetite. Your vet may prescribe medications to reduce inflammation, treat any underlying infections, and alleviate discomfort.

Tracheal Collapse

This is a common condition in small dog breeds, such as Yorkshire Terriers, Pomeranians, and Chihuahuas. The trachea, or windpipe, can weaken and collapse, leading to difficulty breathing.

Dogs affected by this condition may extend their necks and hold their heads high to maximize airflow. They may also develop a cough (often described as a “goose honk” cough), especially when excited or after eating or drinking. Severe cases may require surgical intervention to stabilize the trachea.


Dogs, like people, can suffer from allergies. When allergens such as pollen, dust mites, mold, or certain foods are inhaled or ingested, they can cause an allergic reaction, leading to inflammation in the nasal passages. This inflammation can cause dogs to hold their heads up high to facilitate breathing.

Signs of allergies in dogs include itching, redness, sneezing, and nasal discharge. Your vet can help identify the cause of the allergies and suggest appropriate treatments or management strategies.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infection

Just as in humans, dogs can catch upper respiratory tract infections, often caused by viruses or bacteria. Symptoms can include coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, and difficulty breathing, leading dogs to hold their heads up to help get more air. Depending on the cause of the infection, treatment may involve antibiotics, rest, and ensuring your dog stays hydrated.

Nasal Tumors

Although relatively rare, nasal tumors can occur in dogs. These growths can obstruct the nasal passages, making it difficult for the dog to breathe. As a result, the dog might hold its head up high to try to facilitate breathing. Other symptoms may include nosebleeds, nasal discharge, and facial swelling. Diagnosis often involves imaging tests like X-rays or CT scans, and treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

What To Do If Your Dog Is Holding His Head High Up?

1. Observe Your Pooch

Your first step should be careful observation. Notice when and where this behavior is most prevalent. Is it happening at specific times of the day or in specific locations? Is it only when your dog is lying down or also when they’re standing or walking? Understanding the context of the behavior can give you useful clues about what might be causing it.

2. Record Symptoms

Look for signs of any accompanying symptoms. These can be things like changes in appetite, unusual vocalization, changes in movement or gait, mood swings, or changes in sleep patterns. Even the smallest change might be significant. Keeping a log will allow you to look back on your observations and notice patterns that can aid the vet in diagnosis. If possible, capture videos of the behavior to share with your veterinarian.

3. Inspect Your Pooch

Perform a gentle, non-invasive inspection of your dog. Look closely at their eyes, ears, and nose for any signs of irritation, redness, discharge, or foreign objects. Check their mouth if they allow it. Observe their posture and movements. Do they seem to favor one side, or do they appear stiff or uncomfortable? If your dog shows signs of discomfort during this inspection, stop immediately and consult with your vet.

4. Consult The Vet

If your dog persistently holds its head high and/or shows other worrying symptoms, take them to the vet. Share your observations, symptom records, and any videos you’ve captured. Depending on their initial assessment, the vet might recommend a range of tests such as blood tests, X-rays, or ultrasounds to diagnose the underlying cause and treat or manage these issues.

5. Limit Environmental Triggers

If you’ve observed that certain environmental factors trigger the head-holding behavior, try to limit your dog’s exposure to these triggers. This could mean avoiding certain areas during walks, using air purifiers to improve indoor air quality, or using hypoallergenic cleaning products if your dog has allergies.

If the behavior is linked to anxiety or fear, work on creating a safe, calm space for your dog. This could be a quiet room, a special dog bed, or even a crate if your dog has been crate trained.

Why Does My Dog Lower His Head And Stare? (8 Reasons & How To Stop It)

Dog Holding Head Up While Sleeping

Dogs usually curl up or lay their heads on their paws while sleeping. If you notice your dog holding its head up even while sleeping, it may be a sign of discomfort or distress. Respiratory issues can make it challenging for your pet to breathe when their head is positioned low. Similarly, issues like acid reflux can cause discomfort when the dog is fully reclined.

Even orthopedic problems like arthritis or IVDD might result in your dog adopting this unusual sleeping position for comfort. In such cases, make sure to consult with your vet promptly. Depending on the underlying cause, they might suggest treatment options or recommend supportive care items like orthopedic beds, neck support, or even medications to manage the condition.

Dog Can’t Breathe When Lying Down

If your dog is struggling to breathe when lying down, it’s crucial to seek immediate veterinary care. This behavior can be symptomatic of various serious conditions, such as congestive heart failure, respiratory disorders, or even obesity. In congestive heart failure, fluid accumulates in the lungs, making it difficult for the dog to breathe, especially in certain positions.

Respiratory disorders, including pneumonia or tracheal collapse, can also make it challenging for your dog to draw breath when lying down. Finally, obese dogs may have difficulty breathing due to the extra weight putting pressure on the respiratory system. Once your vet identifies the underlying issue, they can suggest a suitable treatment plan, which could involve medication, dietary changes, weight management, or even surgery in severe cases.

how to help a dog breathe better

Veterinary Care: First and foremost, consult your vet to understand the reason behind the breathing issue. The vet may conduct physical exams, blood tests, X-rays, or other diagnostic procedures to identify the problem. The treatment they suggest will directly relate to this cause and may include medications, surgery, or specific care recommendations.

Maintain a Healthy Weight: Obesity can contribute significantly to breathing difficulties in dogs. Extra body weight can put added pressure on the chest and lungs, making it harder to breathe. Work with your vet to create a nutrition and exercise plan to help your dog reach and maintain a healthy weight. This might involve diet changes, regular, moderate exercise, and potentially weight-loss medication if your vet feels it’s necessary.

Improve Air Quality: The air your dog breathes should be as clean as possible to avoid unnecessary respiratory strain. If you smoke, ensure you do it away from your dog, as secondhand smoke can cause or exacerbate breathing problems. Consider investing in an air purifier, particularly if you live in a polluted area or if your dog has allergies. The air purifier can help remove potential allergens and pollutants from the air.

Regular Exercise: While it’s important not to over-exert a dog with breathing difficulties, regular, gentle exercise can help strengthen its respiratory system. Discuss an appropriate exercise regimen with your vet, considering your dog’s breed, age, and current health status.

Cleaning: For brachycephalic breeds (like Bulldogs or Pugs), regular nose fold cleaning is essential to prevent infection and facilitate better breathing.

Final Thoughts

The sight of your dog holding its head up high can seem unusual and may naturally lead to worry. However, understanding that this behavior can result from various causes, ranging from mere curiosity to medical conditions, is the first step in determining how to help your canine companion.

If you notice that your dog frequently holds its head up high, especially if it’s accompanied by other concerning signs like changes in appetite, mood, sleep, or physical condition, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian promptly. By observing your dog’s behavior, recording symptoms, and sharing these details with your vet, you can contribute significantly to understanding and resolving the issue.

However, addressing potential problems doesn’t mean you should overlook preventive care. Maintaining a healthy weight, ensuring regular exercise, and providing a clean environment with good air quality can contribute significantly to your dog’s overall health, including respiratory health.

Moreover, when it comes to breeds predisposed to certain conditions, like brachycephalic breeds or those with long backs and short legs, knowing these risks can aid in their management. Regular vet check-ups can help detect early signs of potential problems, and timely treatment can prevent complications.

In conclusion, being an observant and proactive pet parent can help you ensure that your furry friend leads a comfortable, happy, and healthy life. Never hesitate to seek professional advice when you’re in doubt about your pet’s behavior or health. Your vigilance, combined with the expertise of veterinary professionals, can make a significant difference in your dog’s well-being.

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