Dogs cannot be trained to hold their breath on command, so it is ethically impossible to determine how long they can hold their breath. Even though it’s not a testable hypothesis, it has been established that if a dog does not breathe for just three to five minutes, it will suffer from severe brain damage. In light of this knowledge, dogs are unlikely to be able to hold their breath for longer than three to five minutes without suffering severe consequences.
If you have been on social media in the past five years, odds are that you have witnessed a dog diving into the water or swimming. Some breeds are bred specifically to retrieve items from the water, just as some are bred for rescuing hikers. Some dogs love the water so much that their owners cannot keep them dry if there is water nearby.
But when you see a dog swimming, has the question of whether or not dogs can hold their breath ever crossed your mind?
Well, they can! Like many other mammals, dogs have developed an automatic response to being submerged in water that restricts their breathing abilities.
Two Reasons Dogs Naturally Hold Their Breath
There are two primary reasons why your dog would naturally hold its breath:
- While swimming
- When exposed to smoke
When a dog engages in swimming or is exposed to smoke, its body responds in a way that keeps them from the danger of inhaling water or smoke. This natural response is a life-saving measure, especially when in water.
The mammalian diving response allows dogs to protect themselves when swimming. The mammalian diving response is a natural reaction when exposed to water that all air-breathing vertebrates have developed.
In the mammalian diving response, three processes are set into motion to help the animal survive on a lower oxygen level.
These three responses include:
- Slowing the heart rate
- Conserving oxygen and reducing blood flow to extremities
- Blood shifting to accommodate the increase in pressure deep underwater
Of these three responses, blood shifting is not highly relevant to your dog, as they likely won’t dive deep enough for this to occur.
Mammals bodies have developed to slow their heart rate, known as bradycardia, to help tolerate the lower amount of oxygen.
To conserve the mammal’s supply of oxygen, the body engages in peripheral vasoconstriction where the blood vessels narrow to restrict the amount of blood that flows to the outer extremities, like legs and arms.
Once the mammalian diving response is activated, the animal–in this case, dogs–will not breathe underwater because it overrides all the animal’s other instincts.
This response is automatic for dogs and other animals and is not a conscious decision to hold their breath.
When exposed to smoke, dogs will experience apnea, where they momentarily stop breathing. Unfortunately, periods of apnea are often followed by periods of hyperventilation, where they will excessively inhale in an attempt to replenish their oxygen supply.
Here, dogs can hold their breath in an emergency situation but will try to breathe again quickly after.
So How Long Can Dogs Hold Their Breath?
While several studies have shown that dogs can hold their breath in certain circumstances, it is impossible to ethically test how long they can hold it. Even though many behaviors can be learned through training, it is not possible to train your dog on when and how to breathe. These issues have led to an indefinite answer as to how long a dog can hold their breath.
What to Do If Your Dog Isn’t Breathing In an Emergency Situation
Knowing that a dog can hold their breath underwater or, in the extreme cases of being around smoke, you can conclude that it can survive without air for a brief period of time.
However, permanent brain damage may occur if your dog has not caught a breath in three to five minutes. After 10 minutes deprived of oxygen, there is little chance for survival.
If you discover your dog not breathing, follow your ABC’s:
Make sure nothing is obstructing your pet’s airway by looking in their mouth. Place the dog on their side, extend their neck, pull out their tongue and look thoroughly for any objects in their mouth or throat.
You should sweep your index finger along the edges of your dog’s mouth, in the pockets near the cheeks, and along the back of their throat if you suspect something unseen might be lodged.
If you find something stuck, administer five to ten abdominal thrusts. An abdominal thrust is a move that is similar to the Heimlich maneuver performed on humans.
If you have removed the obstruction and your dog is still not responding, you need to begin CPR. The easiest way to do this on a dog is to hold their mouth close, place your mouth over their nose (and/or mouth depending on how large your dog is), and create a seal with your lips or hand before breathing twice into them.
Watch their chest and see if it rises as the lungs expand; be very careful not to over inflate your dog’s lungs, especially in smaller breeds.
After the first two breaths, check to see if your dog resumes breathing on its own. If not, continue administering CPR and transport your dog to the nearest animal hospital.
Monitor your dog’s heartbeats as you artificially provide respiration by placing your index finger on their chest near their left elbow.
If you cannot detect a heartbeat, you will need to begin cardiac compressions. The style of compression administration will differ depending on the size of your dog; be sure to know the correct procedures before it is an emergency.
Dogs Can Hold Their Breath – But We Do Not Know How Long
Dogs can hold their breath. However, they do not have as much control over it as humans. Along with other mammals, dogs have an automatic response that causes them to unconsciously hold their breath.
It has also been proven that dogs will experience apnea when in an extremely smoky environment, meaning they will hold their breath for a brief period of time.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to ethically determine how long a dog can hold its breath, as dogs cannot be trained to breathe on command.
While it is not a testable hypothesis, we know that if a dog does not breathe for as little as three to five minutes, it can cause severe brain damage.
Based on this knowledge, it is likely that dogs cannot hold their breath – involuntarily or not – for longer than three to five minutes without incurring serious harm.
That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule – especially with nature. Just as there are unique humans who can pull off one-in-a-kind stunts, there may be dogs that can hold their breath for 7-10 minutes and have no long-term brain damage.
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