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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) in Dogs

Shock Lung in Dogs

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a condition characterized by sudden respiratory failure due to the accumulation of fluid and severe inflammation in the lungs. In dogs, ARDS poses a significant threat, with current mortality rates nearing 100 percent. Often referred to as shock lung, ARDS typically follows a traumatic injury or another event leading to a state of shock. As a syndrome, ARDS signals an underlying medical issue, usually involving the passage of blood, fluid, and tissue into the alveoli—the air cells in the lungs—resulting in their collapse. Once the alveoli are compromised, breathing becomes difficult and may become impossible without prompt treatment.

While in humans there appears to be a genetic component contributing to the development of ARDS, this factor has yet to be explored in dogs.

Symptoms and Types

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) can manifest in various conditions, presenting diverse symptoms based on the underlying cause. The following are common symptoms associated with ARDS:

  • Intense efforts to breathe
  • Coughing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Fever
  • Cyanosis (bluish discoloration of the skin)
  • Additional signs linked to the underlying disease


Following are a few of the major causes of ARDS in dogs:

  • Pneumonia
  • Inhalation of smoke and noxious gases
  • Near drowning
  • Thermal burns
  • Aspiration of gastric contents
  • Serious infections of the lungs or bloodstream
  • Lung injury due to trauma
  • Other serious illness


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a medical emergency necessitating immediate attention. Upon examination, your veterinarian will initiate emergency treatment promptly. Providing a comprehensive history of your dog’s health, symptom onset, and potential preceding incidents—such as trauma or exposure to gases, fumes, or solid substances—is essential. Concurrently, your veterinarian will investigate the underlying cause of the sudden lung failure. Diagnostic measures include various laboratory tests such as blood tests, serum biochemical tests, urine analysis, and blood gas analysis, which is particularly crucial for diagnosing ARDS in veterinary practice. Additionally, chest X-rays and echocardiography will be ordered to visually assess and evaluate lung and heart function.


Dogs afflicted with this syndrome necessitate emergency treatment within an intensive care unit. While immediate intervention is crucial, identifying and addressing the underlying cause is imperative to forestall further complications or fatalities. Despite recent advancements, ARDS remains among the most formidable challenges in veterinary care.

Immediate administration of supplemental oxygen therapy is initiated to alleviate respiratory distress. Should your dog exhibit poor response to oxygen therapy and continue to experience severe breathing difficulties, ventilator-supported breathing may yield better results. Medications prescribed for ARDS treatment encompass antibiotics, pain relievers, fluid therapy, and corticosteroids to mitigate inflammation and swelling.

Regular monitoring of temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure is essential to track your dog’s progress during the initial treatment phase. If ventilator support is necessary, your dog may also require routine physiotherapy sessions and frequent changes in body position to avert complications associated with ventilator assistance. Dogs afflicted with ARDS are confined to strict cage rest until complete recovery is achieved.

Living and Management

ARDS demands vigilant support from you to ensure successful treatment, management, and care. Adhere closely to your veterinarian’s guidelines, and seek clarification if you have any doubts. Failure to conclusively diagnose and address an underlying disease may result in recurrent episodes of respiratory distress.

Dogs recovering from ARDS require ample time, rest, and proper nutrition for complete recuperation. Avoid confining your dog to stuffy or hot environments, and allow it to indicate when it has had sufficient walking or exercise. Some dogs may develop lung scarring, known as fibrosis, even after resolution of the condition, rendering the lung tissue stiffer and less proficient at oxygen retention. Following your veterinarian’s dietary and management recommendations while minimizing activity is paramount to prevent recurrence.

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