Most pedigree dog breeds have certain health complaints they are prone to. Cavalier King Charles suffer from heart problems, Dachshunds have back problems, and Labradors have hip dysplasia. West Highland White Terriers (‘Westies’) suffer from skin complaints commonly but also a condition known as ‘westie lung disease’. We’ll explore what westie lung is and what you can do to help your dog if you think they might have it.

What is ‘westie lung’?

Westie lung disease is a term used for a condition called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. This is a progressive condition that takes 1-2 years to develop; it is commonly seen in elderly West Highland White Terriers.

This disease causes the lungs to become inflamed, thickened and scarred. This stops them from being able to expand as easily as normal. And it means oxygen struggles to pass into the dog’s bloodstream. The condition is termed ‘idiopathic’ which means the exact cause of the condition is unknown but is thought to be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors (e.g. living in a house with cigarette smoke). Whilst it is possible for other breeds to suffer from this illness, it is uncommon. Hence why a genetic factor is considered likely which predisposes westies to the condition.

What are the symptoms of ‘westie lung’?

A dog with westie lung may show the following symptoms –

  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty exercising
  • More noisy breathing, with a crackly chest or wheezing
  • More rapid breathing
  • Breathing difficulty (some dogs present collapsed and struggling for breath)

If your dog shows any of those signs then make sure you take them to a vet as soon as possible, don’t ignore it.

How is ‘westie lung’ diagnosed?

Your vet will start by examining your dog which will involve listening to your dog’s chest with a stethoscope, to check for any crackles and wheezes in the lungs.

They may suggest some further tests to try and confirm a diagnosis, as other conditions such as heart failure or chest infections may present in a very similar way. Blood samples may be taken to look at your dog’s general health (such as the liver and kidneys) and to look for any markers of inflammation or infection.

X-rays are usually recommended to image the lungs and look for any changes. This also allows the vet to look for signs of any other disease; including cardiac conditions which may present as enlargement of the heart or changes to its shape. A tracheal wash may be performed at the same time, which involves flushing a small amount of sterile liquid into your dog’s airways which is drawn back out again, collecting cells from the airways with it. These samples are analysed at the lab, for inflammatory cells and any infectious agents, such as bacteria.

For most dogs these tests, alongside a high clinical suspicion (older westie with breathing difficulties), allow a presumed diagnosis to be made. To get a definitive diagnosis, a lung biopsy of an area of diseased lung tissue would be required which is a risky and invasive procedure, so is not usually recommended.

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What is the treatment for ‘westie lung’?

Treatment for this condition usually involves anti-inflammatory treatment with steroids (prednisolone), which might be given alongside bronchodilators to help open the airways up, like theophylline. Sometimes other drugs are given to help control coughing. These treatments are given on a long-term basis, it will not cure your dog but should help improve his condition.

Will my dog be ok if he has ‘Westie lung’?

Sadly, this disease is progressive, meaning it will continue to slowly get worse over time. Whilst medication may help to improve his quality of life for a while there will reach a point where it is no longer effective. It’s hard to predict the exact time frame, as it depends on the degree of lung damage at the time of diagnosis. However many dogs are euthanased within 12-18 months because of severe respiratory distress.

Conclusion

‘Westie lung’ is a term frequently used to describe Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, which primarily affects older West Highland White Terriers. This disease is not curable, and many affected dogs will be euthanised because of it. Taking them to a vet promptly will mean treatment can be started quicker which will help improve your dog’s quality of life, so don’t ignore it if you think your dog has any symptoms.

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