What Causes ARDS in Cats and Dogs?

What Causes ARDS in Cats and Dogs?

Medically Reviewed by Taylor Froiland, PharmD, RPh
Written by Adam McCown, PharmD

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) in dogs and cats is an extremely dangerous and potentially fatal illness. ARDS is a condition that is characterized by sudden respiratory failure due to fluid accumulation and severe inflammation in your dog or cat’s lungs. Unfortunately, this condition, also known as Shock Lung, has close to a 100% mortality rate in dogs and cats.

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome has been primarily studied in humans, because it was thought to be relatively rare in other animals. However, as more is learned by veterinarians about the disease and they become more familiar with diagnosing it, it is likely that we will see more and more cases.

Respiratory distress in dogs and cats

What Causes Acute Respiratory Distress in Dogs and Cats?

The reason that ARDS is also referred to as Shock Lung is that is often results from something that leads to a state of shock, like a traumatic injury, near drowning, or other event. In other words, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome is actually a complication of other severe conditions. In addition to traumatic physical events, diseases that can cause ARDS often include sepsis (infection), pancreatitis, pneumonia (due to infection or the inhalation of foreign materials), and other severe illnesses.

Unlike in many human cases, dogs and cats are not genetically prone to developing this condition. It is nearly exclusively the result a medical condition or event that induces inflammation that causes blood, fluid, and tissue to cross over into the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli), causing them to collapse, and making breathing extremely difficult or impossible.

In other words, the release of various inflammatory cells and chemicals leads to the leaking of fluids into the lungs. This fluid prevents the lungs from exchanging oxygen effectively and will eventually lead to your dog “drowning” in those fluids. ARDS usually occurs about a few days after the onset of the severe inflammatory response resulting from the traumatic event or illness.

Treating acute respiratory distress in cats

Signs and Symptoms of Acute Respiratory Distress in Dogs and Cats

Although ARDS can occur as the result of varying conditions with a number of different signs and symptoms, general symptoms of respiratory distress in dogs and cats will normally include the following:

  •       Extreme efforts to breath
  •       Cough
  •       Discharge from nostrils
  •       Fever
  •       Cyanosis (blue discoloration of skin)
  •       Other signs related to underlying disease

If you notice any of these symptoms and think your dog has ARDS, you need to take them to your veterinarian immediately. As we said, this is an extremely serious, emergency situation that requires attention right away.

Diagnosis of Acute Respiratory Distress in Dogs and Cats

Once you bring your pet to the vet, they will perform a thorough physical exam along with a number of tests, including blood tests, serum biochemical tests, urine tests, and a blood gas analysis. They may also choose to order chest X-rays and an echocardiogram so they can visually examine and see whether your pet’s lungs and heart are working correctly.

If the veterinarian determines that your dog or cat has ARDS, they will most likely recommend that they be immediately admitted into an intensive medical car unit for emergency treatment. Once admitted, the pet medical emergency professionals will first attempt to treat the underlying disease causing the respiratory distress. Treating the underlying condition is the only way to stop the continued inflammation and fluid build up in the lungs.

Simultaneously, your pet must also receive help with breathing and lung function. At first, this often involves supplying supplemental oxygen through the use of an oxygen cage or a line that carries oxygen right into the nasal passages. In more severe situations, the dog or cat may need to be put on a mechanical ventilator in order to breathe. This requires that the dog or cat will be fully anesthetized, so that a tube can be passed into the trachea (windpipe) and the ventilator can be used to breathe for the dog.

Prognosis of ARDS

Unfortunately, the prognosis for acute respiratory distress syndrome is not good. Even with the use of ventilators and aggressive treatment, nearly all animals with ARDS do not survive. Even when it comes to humans, mortality approaches 50% for this condition.

If your pet does pull through, then they will require many different types of medications, including pain relief drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs, and, depending on the underlying condition, possibly an anti-fungal or antibiotic medication. Your pet will also need to be evaluated regularly after the event to monitor the health and function of their heart and lungs.  

We are here to help both you and your pet through this difficult illness. You can find any medication your dog or cat needs conveniently online at Express Vet Pharmacy. We are here for both of you!