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Pleural Effusion in Dogs

Some dogs can experience a condition that causes fluid to fill the pleural sacs, greatly reducing the capacity of the lungs. Here, our vets at Westminster discuss the causes and symptoms of pleural effusion in dogs, how it can be diagnosed, and what the life expectancy is for dogs with this condition.

What does it mean when a dog has pleural effusion?

Pleural effusion is a medical term used to describe the buildup of excess fluid in the chest cavity. This fluid is not present inside the lungs but within the pleural sac, causing the lungs to be surrounded by fluid. The accumulation of fluid takes up space in the chest area, restricting the lungs from expanding to their full capacity.

What symptoms of pleural effusion do dogs experience?

Symptoms of fluid accumulation in the pleural cavity can include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Muffled breathing sounds
  • Dull heart sounds
  • Long intake of air
  • Short, fast exhale of air
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Bluish color to skin and mucous membranes
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite

What are the main causes of pleural effusion in dogs?

There are several potential causes of pleural effusion. In dogs, the most frequently encountered causes include:

  • Infections, bacterial, viral or parasitic
  • Injuries, including penetrating chest wounds
  • Heart failures
  • Cirrhosis
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary emboli, or blood clots in the blood vessels of the lungs
  • Tumors and cancers
  • Hypoalbuminemia, or low albumin levels
  • Lung conditions
  • Lung hernia
  • Lymphatic disruption
  • Bleeding or clotting disorders
  • Drug toxicity
  • Rat poison toxicity

What is the method of diagnosing pleural effusion in dogs?

When your dog shows signs of pleural effusion, your veterinarian will conduct a thorough examination, including a check of the heart and lungs. They may also perform imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, or ultrasounds to detect any fluid buildup and rule out other conditions.

To diagnose breathing difficulties, a common procedure called thoracocentesis may be used, which involves extracting air or fluid from the pleural cavity using a needle. Ultrasound technology may also be used to aid in this process. Once the fluid is extracted, it is tested and X-rays are taken to assess the severity of the pleural effusion.

The fluid samples are analyzed cytologically, and aerobic and anaerobic cultures are conducted. Your veterinarian may recommend further diagnostic testing on both the extracted fluid and blood samples to determine the underlying cause of the pleural effusion. These tests can include CBC, retroviral screening, infectious disease screening, heartworm testing, triglyceride level testing, and coagulation parameters. An echocardiography may be necessary if your dog is suspected of having heart issues.

How is pleural effusion in dogs treated?

For dogs with pleural effusion, the treatment options will depend on the cause of the fluid accumulation. In most cases, thoracentesis is the primary method of treatment, as it serves as both a diagnostic and therapeutic procedure. This technique promptly relieves the condition by draining the fluid from the space around the lungs, which allows for better lung expansion. Once the procedure begins, breathing typically improves immediately. While supplemental oxygen may also be provided, it's important to note that it doesn't directly aid lung expansion. This makes the thoracentesis step crucial to the treatment process.

How long can a dog live with pleural effusion?

For dogs with pleural effusion, the survival rate relies on three crucial factors: the underlying cause of the condition, the severity of the effusion, and the effectiveness of the treatment. In cases where the effusion is severe and the root cause is not addressed promptly, the dog's lifespan may be limited to a few days or weeks. However, if the underlying cause is curable and the treatment is successful, the dog can live for several months to years.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If you have concerns about your dog's breathing and notice symptoms of Pleural Effusion, please reach out to our Westminster vets to schedule an appointment.

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