Why Do Dogs Pant?

Panting Has Many Causes

Labradors panting outside
Tara Gregg / EyeEm/Getty Images

Any dog lover knows that panting is a typical doggie behavior. But you may wonder why it occurs, or whether your pet's panting is excessive or unusual. Researchers have looked at dog panting to determine its causes; what they discovered may surprise you.

What Is Panting?

Moderate to rapid open-mouthed respiration is a normal dog behavior that lowers body temperature and also gets oxygen into the puppy's bloodstream.

The panting dog breathes with his mouth open and tongue somewhat protruding.

Panting should not be confused with labored breathing. Labored breathing is characterized by strained respiration and may be accompanied by sounds of distress like crying or whining, or whistles from the nostrils or windpipe due to blockage.

What Does Panting Do for Dogs?

Most of us pant from time to time as we run, climb stairs, or otherwise exert ourselves. While dogs may pant while they exercise, though, they do it for different reasons. What's more, no matter how fast they may pant, dogs won't experience the dizziness of hyperventilation.

Panting as a cooling mechanism is necessary because dogs do not have an effective system of sweat glands like people do. Instead, dogs cool their bodies using the evaporation of moisture from the mouth and tongue, and by exchanging the hot air of their lungs with cooler external air.

When the outside air temperature is the same or higher than the puppy’s normal body temperature of 102 degrees, panting won’t effectively cool off the puppy and can lead to heat stroke. Hot puppies may also resort to digging to scoop out cool places to rest.

Common Reasons for Panting

1. The weather is hot and your puppy pants to cool off.

Even if they are not overheating, dogs will pant from exercise. It's much like the way humans breathe heavily when doing aerobic exercise. However, panting is also the primary way for dogs to cool themselves off because they don't sweat the way humans do. Though dogs do sweat a little bit from their paw pads, this cannot sufficiently cool them off. Instead, dogs cool themselves through their mouths.

Panting allows dogs to release heat and exchange it for cooler air. As you may imagine, this is not a very efficient process. It's even less efficient for short-faced dogs (like Bulldogs or Pugs). That's why dogs start to pant even when they get even a little bit warm. The hotter a dog becomes, the more intense the panting becomes. Sometimes, heavy panting is accompanied by drooling and redness of the tongue and gums.

Extreme panting could be a sign of heat stroke or exhaustion.

Along with profound panting, warning signs include bright red tongue and gums, wide eyes, and elongated appearance of the tongue. Take steps to prevent overheating by keeping your dog cool and minimizing exposure to heat. Always take careful steps to keep your dog safe in hot weather. When in doubt, take your dog to the vet for medical attention.

2. Excitement or stress (like a ride in the car) can increase the heart rate and respiration and prompt panting.

Panting may have nothing to do with body temperature. Many dogs will pant when they experience fear, anxiety, or stress. Examples include car rides, fireworks, separation anxiety, vet visits and other stressful events. Look at your dog's body language to help you determine if your dog is showing signs of fear or any other type of distress. Understanding the cause of fear or anxiety in your dog can help you minimize these incidents. If panting seems to be related to fear, anxiety or stress, it's best to remove your dog from the situation as soon as you can.

3. Many dogs pant when they play and are having fun.

Panting may simply be a sign of happiness in your dog. If so, the rest of your dog's body language will reflect this happy mood.

The tail will usually be wagging in a happy way. Your dog's body and facial features will be somewhat relaxed. The eyes will appear bright and happy. Once things calm down, the panting will likely slow down and may eventually stop. Continued mild panting with an open mouth and bright eyes is normal in a relaxed, content dog. In fact, many people consider this to be a doggie smile! One researcher, Patricia Simonet, who has taught animal behavior at Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe, worked with undergraduates on a research study that she believed resulted in the discovery of a panting sound that has the same significance as a human laugh!

4. Any kind of pain or discomfort may prompt a dog to pant.

Dogs are pretty good at hiding pain and illness from humans. Some dogs try harder than others to hide their discomfort. However, once they reach a certain level of discomfort they often cannot help but show signs such as panting. Look for other signs of illness or pain, such as vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, lethargy, limping, and behavior changes. Contact your veterinarian if you suspect that your dog is sick or injured. 

If at any time you see that panting is extremely intense and cannot be explained, you should get your dog to the nearest veterinarian immediately. It's always best to play it safe and let your vet check things out.

5. Physical issues may lead to panting.

These are just a few of the possible reasons why your dog may be panting:

  • Dogs with a high fever may pant to help lower their body temperature.
  • Medications given by the veterinarian may increase respiration or prompt panting.
  • A very full stomach or bloat may also cause your dog to pant, sometimes in preparation for vomiting.