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I have a few questions for you to assess what might be going on with Ben.
1) What breed of dog is he?
2) How long has the loud panting been going on?
3) Do you notice any new problems with snoring or coughing?
4) Any trouble with swallowing when he eats or drinks?
I'm very suspicious of a condition known as laryngeal paralysis.
This can cause the changes that you are seeing.
This can only be diagnosed by putting the dog under sedation/anesthesia and looking directly at the larynx to see if the parts are not moving normally.
In the meantime, avoid any situations when he will need to breathe heavily. That includes increased excitement,
exercise, and heat.
There are surgical treatments to help with laryngeal paralysis, but they have risks as well.
Here is a link to read more about laryngeal paralysis.
I recommend scheduling a consult with a surgeon. The surgeon can discuss if his signs are significant enough to warrant surgery. Then, they can confirm under anesthesia and proceed directly into surgery if that is what you decide.
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Well, you said you were "baffled". I gave you a likely diagnosis. Can you tell me what else you were looking for here? Perhaps I can still help you.