Westie Lung Disease (Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis): Everything You Wanted to Know

By John Martin - May 18, 2021

West Highland White Terrier resting in the grass

Has your beloved doggo been coughing, panting and wheezing more than usual on his or her daily walk? Is it becoming more of a challenge to just get him or her to go out on a daily walk in the first place?

Well, the chances are quite high that your furball may be suffering from the Westie lung disease, or scientifically put, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. This lung disease creeps up slowly on your pet over a period of a year to a year and a half, putting them into respiratory distress — the disease prevents the lungs from functioning normally which in turn affects the dog’s movements and oxygen-absorbing abilities.

The worst thing about the disease is not the disease itself, though; it’s the lack of awareness and information on the same that leads many dog parents to either ignore the disease or not recognize it in time. Here’s everything you need to know about the Westie lung disease so that you can save your pet from a world of misery.

What Is Westie Lung Disease?

As mentioned, Westie lung disease, or idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is a lung disease that affects dogs; the diseases increases in intensity over a period of 12-18 months, preventing the lungs from functioning normally.

What this means is that your dog will no longer be able to absorb oxygen into his or her body, leading to the lungs working double time to satisfy the oxygen needs of the body which puts extra strain on the lungs and the heart, leading to cardiac arrests and a whole lot of pain and suffering.

The disease gets its name from West Highland Terriers, the breed most commonly affected by it.

What Causes Westie Lung Disease?

Unfortunately, the cause of the disease is still unknown, which is why it’s termed “idiopathic”. Since the disease most commonly occurs among West Highland terriers, many experts believe that it could be a bane of the breed’s genetic background, while some believe that it has something to do with allergies, fibrosis and the immune system.

Some other experts attribute the diseases to frequent injuries to the lungs caused by a variety of agents, assumed to be pollutants and organisms in the air that are inhaled. Due to the injury that these agents cause, it is believed that the lungs protect themselves by forming scar tissue instead of normal cells.

This scar tissue is stiff, unlike normal cells that are elastic or stretchy in nature. This causes the lungs to lose their flexibility, making it harder for them to accommodate the normal inhaling and exhaling motion of breathing, leading to lower oxygen intake as well as a decreased ability to rid the body of unwanted gases.

For context, this is similar to scarring; new tissue form over scars but aren’t the same as they used to be — they’re stiffer and harder, restricting movement and normal functioning. Sadly, though, nothing has been proven yet, which makes it even harder to prevent the disease or shield your pet from being affected by it.

Some experts also believe that the lung tissue could be damaged by the following illnesses and conditions:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Tumors
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Infections such as leishmania and Dirofilaria and even viral infections
  • Pancreatitis

Symptoms of the Disease

One of the very first symptoms of the Westie lung disease that you’ll notice is the “crackling” sound your pet makes while breathing. This noise is the result of the stiff tissue in the lungs trying to expand and contract to accommodate breathing.

This sound is extremely faint; chances are that you’ll pick it up only when you listen for it closely near your pet’s mouth and that too, in a quiet space. Most often, even vets can only pick up on this sound with a stethoscope. However, as the disease progresses, the sound becomes stronger, letting you judge the severity of the disease in your pet. Picking up on the sound early can delay the fibrosis build-up in your Westie’s lungs.

Due to fibrosis, several other symptoms set in as a consequence, such as an aversion to exercise, fatigue, lethargy and increased coughing and wheezing during activity, even if it is a relatively small activity like scratching themselves. You’ll also notice your pet often changing his or her position to find a sitting or lying position that doesn’t exert pressure on the lungs, often resorting to lying on their sides or even upside down.

With the progression of time, you may also notice other symptoms such as:

  • A conscious elongation of the neck to allow more airflow into the lungs
  • Increased sniffing when out on walks
  • Shorter and slower walks due to the fatigue and inability to breathe
  • No interest in physical exertion such as runs or walks
  • Quicker and deeper inwards and outwards movement of the lungs
  • Slower eating due to the lack of oxygen
  • An increased amount of mucus, especially around the eyes
  • An increasing amount of sleeping, often very deep and difficult to arouse from
  • Dry or phlegmy coughing which is countered by pulling on the lead or scratching the chest and neck areas

Due to these symptoms, dogs also tend to feel insecure on walks; they recognize the inability to run away if required, which makes them more afraid and wary around other dogs. This doesn’t mean that your dog knows that he or she is ill; they realize that something is different in their body and try to work around and adapt to it.

In some cases, pets may also be given to feeling dizzy, fainting and breathing increasingly with their mouths open. They may also have cases of blue tongues.

Additionally, the symptoms of the disease can vary in intensity; pet parents have reported that their dogs were still relatively active and had a relatively good appetite before succumbing to the disease in the span of a week or shorter.

It is important to note that though the disease is most common among Westies, it isn’t restricted to just this breed; other terrier breeds can also be affected by it. Another way to identify the disease is to get your vet to regularly check your Westie’s breathing — at least twice a year, from their puppy stage to adulthood.

Related Post: Common Westie Skin Problems to Watch For

Is It Curable?

The hard truth is that there is no cure for Westie lung disease; Westies succumb to the disease and all you can do as a pet parent is to catch the disease in its early stages so that the setting in of the symptoms can be delayed and you can make things more comfortable for your pet.

However, there is some basic treatment and measures you can take to prevent the onset of the disease, such as:

  • Corticosteroids that prevent scarring from building up in the lungs, administered orally or inhaled
  • Bronchodilation drugs to increase airflow to the lungs by opening up airways
  • Cough syrups or suppressants to minimize the effect of coughing on the lungs as well as the heart
  • Diuretics to get rid of any excess fluid build up in the lungs (a result of the scarring and the heart’s weakness caused by the disease)
  • Tablets for the heart to increase and assist blood flow around the body, especially the lungs, so that oxygen is distributed better.

In addition to these prescribed medicines, some pet parents have also used enzymes; though these are not prescription drugs and are, therefore, not tried or tested, many owners have stated their efficiency in increasing their pet’s comfort and life.

Caring for Your Pet

Though there is information (even though it is limited) available on the disease, the information on caring for your furry little one once the disease hits, is even more limited.

Making life more comfortable for your Westie can help you spend more quality time with him or her and serve to alleviate some of the emotional and mental difficulties that pet parents experience when their pet is diagnosed.

However, ensure that you don’t overly restrict your dog from doing things that he or she wants to; you never know when your dog may succumb to the disease, so let your dog do as he or she wishes and make the choice to stop on their own.

Here are a few other things you can do to make life more comfortable for your Westie:

  • Using a fan to blow air on them, especially during the warmer months, will serve to help increase the air intake and make breathing easier. Leaving a few windows open in the area where they sleep will also help, as this keeps the air circulating and fresh; as air quality deteriorates by nightfall, circulating air is important.
  • If your house is equipped with a central heating system, ensure that the temperature doesn’t cross 16-17°C; the more the heat, the higher the panting, straining their lungs and heart.
  • When lifting your dog or holding him or her, you’ll need to do so in a way that doesn’t put unrequired pressure on the rib cage or lungs. Lifting them with both hands around their chest is a “no”!
  • During the cold months, the air tends to get cold and damp; in other words, it gets “thin”. Try taking your pet out for a walk when the cold and wetness are at their minimum; they won’t struggle to breathe nearly as much (shivering is an indication that they’re finding the air too cold, which they may not have done in better health). Even if they do get wet, towel dry them as soon as possible and ensure they’re warm.
  • Try to avoid using aerosols and air fresheners, as this leads to the air quality deteriorating inside the house.
  • Keep water and food bowls elevated so that their neck is raised and they’re able to breathe better while eating or drinking.
  • If your dog is up for some traveling, letting your dog put his or her head out of the window for short periods can actually help; the cool air blowing onto them lets them take in more oxygen.
  • If you want to use a lead when taking your Westie out for a walk, using a harness will help you avoid unnecessarily stressing the dog’s windpipe, especially when they pull on the lead. This also helps cut down the amount of coughing.

Additionally, don’t breed your dog without considering the consequences that may arise in the future. You really don’t want to unknowingly put a generation of puppies through this chronic disease. Only breed if your dogs have lived up to a ripe old age and you know the entire history of each pup in the various litters.

It is important to know that though steroids help to a great extent, their effects on your little one greatly dwindle after 12 months (18, in some very lucky cases). The fibrosis is in its advanced stage now and your dog may no longer be able to fight it off anymore. Blue tongues and gums and increasing gasping for air are indicators that the disease has taken a severe hold of your pet. Needless to say, this is traumatic for both pets and pet parents.

Many vets suggest oxygen tents and nebulizers, or just long drives in the car. However, the positive effects of these are short lived and pretty soon, as soon as your pet steps back into lower-quality air, the symptoms of the disease will resurface.

Coming to terms with the fact that your beloved Westie won’t make it through this battle can be extremely hard, mentally and emotionally. After all, it isn’t easy to see a loved one, a family member, go through any kind of pain, especially knowing that succumbing to it is the only way to get rid of the disease and the torment it brings.

You could always do all of the aforementioned to make life better for your pet but know that this only serves to make their last few months more comfortable and will not heal them. Any treatment will also stop being effective once the scarring reaches a high extent.

There may come a time when letting your pet go will seem like the best decision for both you and your little one. Your vet will advise you on the same and you must prepare yourself for this eventuality to help put an end to your Westie’s suffering, as opposed to letting them die a natural death; they may suffer greatly before this happens.


The Westie lung disease is a chronic disease not just in terms of its impacts, but also because so little is known about it; there are only assumptions and theories about what causes it and no known cure as yet.

Watching your beloved pet go through the disease and knowing that they will eventually succumb to it is like fighting an uphill battle, just the way it’s an uphill battle for your pet to fight the disease. You may win your battle, but your Westie will not. Prepare yourself well for this eventuality and ensure you give your little one the best life that you can in the few short months before the disease takes over.

Let them choose what they want to and don’t want to do. Lots of love and attention is important; it always is, but more so in this period. Cuddle them, but ensure you don’t put any pressure on their chest and lungs. Care for your pet the right way to alleviate their pain and suffering before it’s time to finally let them go.