On a hot summer day, especially after a long walk or trip to the park, your dog’s panting isn’t exactly a mystery–they’re hot, they’re tired, and they’re ready for a drink of water. However, in other contexts, panting can convey more complex information about your dog’s stress levels, state of mind, or physical comfort.
How dogs cool themselves
In the animal kingdom, humans are an outlier, but not for the reasons you may think. We are the only mammal that cools itself primarily through the evaporation of water on our skin–aka “sweating.” In contrast, most fur-covered mammals pant to cool themselves, making our dogs the normal ones in comparison.
(Fun fact: your dog has sweat glands in their paws to help keep them cool. If they’re panting and leaving wet paw prints behind, they’re definitely feeling hot!)
As your dog inhales, air comes into contact with moisture from the lining of their nose, tongue, and lungs before circulating throughout their body, cooling it in the process. As they exhale, they expel heat.
Panting as a cooling mechanism is a water-intensive process, so if you notice your dog panting heavily in the heat, give them some water.
Stress vs. Heat
Heat- and stress-induced panting can look similar, consisting of rapid, labored breathing that may even be audible. In most cases, your overheated dog just needs water, shade, and some rest. But how do you tell if they’re panting because of stress?
Environment provides important context clues. If they’re indoors and at rest but are panting and alert, it’s easy to figure out that something is agitating them. When the situation is more ambiguous, ask yourself: is my dog engaging with their environment and the people around them?
If yes–you’re most likely looking at a happy but tired dog. If no–they may be stressed and need to go somewhere quieter so that they can calm down.
Light, easy panting accompanied by an open mouth and even a subtle eye squint is the best kind! You probably think of this as a canine smile–and you’re not wrong. Your dog can also pant to convey anticipation and happiness, their face relaxed and the corners of their mouth loose.
Test it out by jingling his leash or shaking some treats. Your dog should come running, alert and “smiling.”
Potential health issues
Watch out for heavy or unusual breathing, as this can indicate a health issue. While your dog may continue to pant for a while after wrapping up their walk, exercise- and heat-induced panting should naturally taper off as they cool down. Furthermore, if they’re panting without any readily discernible cause, they may be physically uncomfortable or in pain. Always consult a vet if you have any concerns.
Brachycephalic breeds such as pugs and French bulldogs are prone to loud breathing, which can be confused with heavy panting. However, these breeds also overheat easily, so don’t dismiss any abnormal breathing patterns.
Your dog pants not just because of biology but as a form of communication. Sometimes they may just be saying that they need water. Other times, they’re saying that they’re nervous, happy, or uncomfortable. To understand why your dog is panting, examine their breathing patterns in the larger context of their behavior, body language, and environment.