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Westie Lung Disease: Signs, Causes & Care (Vet Answer)

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By Dr. Rachel Ellison

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Dr. Rachel Ellison

DVM (Veterinarian)

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Have you ever heard of Westie Lung disease? This condition is most commonly referred to as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in veterinary literature. Regardless, it is a disease that typically affects the lungs of the West Highland White Terrier dog breed. Over time, scar tissue replaces normal lung tissue which results in difficulty breathing.

In this article, we’ll learn about the signs, causes, and recommended care that come along with this condition as well as what you can expect if your dog receives this diagnosis.

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What Is Westie Lung Disease?

Westie Lung Disease is a disease of many names! Other names aside from the previously mentioned idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis include canine idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, chronic pulmonary fibrosis, and chronic pulmonary disease. You may be surprised to learn that this disease in dogs shares many similarities with the human idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis disease.

The name “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis” broken down literally means an unknown cause of lung tissue becoming thickened with scarring. In fact, it is a type of interstitial lung disease which means that it belongs to a group of diseases that scar lung tissue and over time continue to get worse. Once fibrosis occurs, it is irreversible. Eventually, the high level of permanent scar tissue in the lungs leads to hypoxemia, which is a very low amount of oxygen in the blood.

This disease tends to occur over a longer period of time (chronic) and will get worse over time (progressive). It is more often present in middle-aged to older dogs, with the fibrosis and scarring occurring primarily in the lower respiratory tract. The mean age of onset is around 9 years old, and it affects both male and female dogs equally. Diagnosis can be difficult as the signs are very subtle at the start of the disease and are often chalked up to normal aging changes rather than an abnormal disease process. In fact, in one study, many owners had found their dog signs for over a year prior to being diagnosed. Once signs begin, the life expectancy of an affected dog is about 18 months, on average.

west highland white terrier lying at home
Image Credit: Roman Gorielov,Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of Westie Lung Disease?

The signs of Westie lung disease will typically start out as mild and then gradually progress and worsen over time. Signs that are commonly seen include the following:

  • Exercise intolerance
  • Cough
  • A change resulting in difficulty breathing such as increased and fast rate of breathing, abdominal breathing component, etc

In the disease’s later stages, other signs may include the following:

  • Blue (instead of pink) color of the gums
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Extreme respiratory distress
  • Collapse

What Are the Causes of Westie Lung Disease?

Because idiopathic means a disease process of an unknown cause, it may not be a surprise to hear that what causes idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is still not known. While our knowledge of this disease is limited, one interesting fact is that there is an unusual amount of collagen that is inside the lung tissue which causes the signs seen in an affected dog. The cause of this has not been determined but it has been found to not be due to an injury or inflammation in the lung.

Moreover, because Westies are the primary breed affected by this disease, it is suspected that there is a genetic, hereditary component to the cause. More research is needed on this topic before the veterinary world can fully understand the causes and details of this disease. Until more discoveries are made, there are no known preventive measures at this time.

West highland white terrier
Image Credit: Andris,Shutterstock

How Do I Care for a Dog with Westie Lung Disease?

To diagnose, your veterinarian will need a complete history and will perform a full physical exam. On auscultation with a stethoscope, an affected dog would have detectable changes to their lung sounds. Your dog’s veterinarian may discover lung sounds such as crackles and wheezes and other potential breathing abnormalities which can point toward respiratory distress. Sometimes, a low-grade heart murmur may be present. Radiographs, or X-rays, can reveal specific lung patterns, which when present, help provide evidence for this disease process. Additional testing such as bronchoscopy and lower airway cytology can be helpful to rule out other causes of similar signs and additional tests may be recommended.

An ultrasound of the heart (echocardiogram) may be utilized to rule out heart disease and to check for pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in blood vessels from the heart to the lungs) which can also occur with this disease as a complication.

High-resolution CT may be helpful in some cases and can also rule out other causes of signs such as cancer. A lung biopsy provides a definitive diagnosis but is not often done on living dogs for several reasons. Some of these may include the high cost, potential risks with it being such an invasive procedure, as well as the fact that there is no cure for this disease. Often, a previously presumptive diagnosis can be confirmed more easily postmortem with a lung sample being evaluated for further testing on an affected, deceased pet.

Unfortunately, if your dog has this disease, there is no cure. Supportive care to decrease the discomfort of your dog’s signs in an effort to preserve their quality of life as much as possible is the goal. Symptomatic treatment can include corticosteroids, bronchodilators, cough suppressants, and oxygen therapy when and if needed. If a dog concurrently suffers from pulmonary hypertension, this component can be treated with sildenafil. An affected dog should be able to control their own activity level so as not to overexert themselves. Sedatives may also help dogs who are worked up or anxious due to having a harder time breathing.

West highland white terrier dog with veterinarian during examination
Image Credit: Tinxi,Shutterstock

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can Westie Lung Disease Affect Other Dog Breeds?

Yes, this is possible! It is most commonly and predominantly seen and documented in Westies but has been suspected in other terrier types of breeds such as Jack Russel Terriers, Cairn Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers. It is important to note that this disease is not contagious and cannot be spread from dog to dog but is rather suspected to be due to a genetic component that is passed down from generation to generation.

What Is My Diagnosed Dog’s Prognosis?

As mentioned above, there is no cure for this disease. Supportive care and treatment may be able to help your dog live their best and most comfortable life for the remainder of the time that they have left. While this is not expected to be a painful disease, later stages of the disease process can be distressing for the afflicted pet as it becomes harder to breathe. Although this can be very difficult information for a pet owner to hear, it can be helpful to set the realistic expectation that this disease will ultimately result in death.

Accepting this can allow a pet owner to know they have a finite amount of time left to focus on loving and spoiling their furry friend during the time that remains.

West Highland White Terrier Close up
Image Credit: ana_olly, Pixabay

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Conclusion

Westie Lung Disease, also referred to as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is a chronic and progressive lung disease. While there is no cure, there can be symptomatic treatment that can help your dog live a more comfortable life with the time that they have left. By recognizing the signs, knowing the diagnosis, and understanding how to best care for your affected pet, you’ll be able to spend as much time with your beloved Westie as possible!

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Featured Image Credit: corners74,Shutterstock

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