Dog coughs can be a minor problem such as drinking water too fast or from serious heart or lung problems. The causes of dog coughs are many and varied, but most can be traced to some stimulation or irritation of sensory nerves in the throat, windpipe, or smaller airways. The character of the cough may help to localize the problem to a specific area of the respiratory tree or cardiovascular system.
A cough can even be triggered by eating the wrong treat or dog food. The duration of the cough is an important part of the history, as well as vaccination, heartworm status, travel, boarding, pre-existing health problems, medications, and any prior history of coughing.
Coughs are triggered by irritants in the air passages and can be characterized as dry and hacking, moist and bubbly, gagging, wheezy, harsh, or weak. It can be frequent, chronic, or intermittent and is often self-perpetuating as it dries the throat and leads to further irritation.
Dogs cough for a variety of reasons. Some common causes of coughing and gagging include foreign objects in the airway, bronchitis, bacterial pneumonia, heart disease, laryngeal paralysis, fungal infections, reflux esophagitis (similar to heartburn in people), food allergies, parasites, tumors, and other diseases. Even a too tight dog collar can cause coughing! Environmental factors such as exposure to cigarette smoke, new perfumes, new bedding, or carpeting can also aggravate coughing. There also could be some abnormality of the trachea, or possibly heart problems.
Some dogs will cough and gag whenever they drink water but never do it any other time. When dogs drink they actually throw the water toward the back of the throat with a neat trick of the tongue. If your dog drinks fast, some water may contact the sensitive tissues within the larynx, which triggers a cough response. If your dog can run, play, pant, and breathe without a chronic cough and only does it when drinking, then it's nothing serious and it can be ignored. For mild episodes, massaging your dog's throat may help lessen the symptoms.
Coughing may not sound like a serious problem, but sometimes it is a sign of a significant disease. Since there are so many possible causes of coughing in a dog, a veterinary check-up will help identify the cause. Many of the diseases associated with various types of coughing can be managed if they're caught early on.
Questions Your Vet Will Ask
- How long has your dog been coughing?
- How old is your dog?
- Is the cough harsh and dry, or is it moist and productive?
- Does your dog cough most when up and active, or when lying down or sleeping?
- Is your dog listless or depressed?
- Is your dog having trouble breathing or breathing rapidly?
- Does the problem occur during a certain season of the year?
- Does your dog sneeze and have a runny nose?
- Has your dog been boarded or groomed recently?
- Are there any other changes you have noticed in your dog?
- Have you installed new carpeting, or are you using different cleaning products?
Types of Coughs and how to Treat
Kennel Cough - Tracheobronchitis
High, dry coughs are typical of kennel cough. A dog with kennel cough appears to be healthy but has frequent bouts of a hacking cough. Treatment includes isolation to avoid infection of other family dogs, temperature monitoring, rest, and cough syrup.
Dogs can even pass kennel cough to cats through direct contact, or when they are crowded together in kennels or shelters.
Signs of kennel cough include a dry cough or a "reverse sneeze". A reverse sneeze sounds like a sniffling cough through the nose and signifies post-nasal drip or a tickle in the throat.
Your dog may seem lethargic and have low energy or he may otherwise appear normal. Signs can appear as early as 2 days after exposure. A dry, deep, honking cough that sounds like a goose honking is a symptom of kennel cough (canine infectious respiratory disease complex). Kennel cough is very contagious, and is caused by a large group of viruses and bacteria that affects the respiratory tract of dogs. That honking sound can also be a symptom of tracheal collapse.
A humidifier can help the dog breathe easier and thus reduce coughing and further throat inflammation. Cough medicine recommended by your veterinarian can also be helpful. Cases usually heal in about 2 weeks.
Kennel cough in puppies and toy breeds can be more serious because the throat irritation can be accompanied by thick secretions that can cause pneumonia.
Bordatella vaccine protects dogs from several strains of kennel cough. Any dog that is constantly exposed to other dogs away from home, such as boarding, dog training with other dogs, or dog parks should be protected against kennel cough.
Toy breeds of dogs are very prone to a genetic abnormality called tracheal collapse. The trachea is made up of cartilaginous rings in the shape of a C that are fibrous and soft on their innermost side. In collapsing trachea, the inner soft portion of the windpipe is sucked into the airway during inspiration, partially blocking it. With time, the membranes lining the trachea become inflamed causing a chronic dry, hacking cough.
The condition is easily diagnosed by massaging the trachea near the dog's chest for a few minutes. Dogs with this problem go into a coughing spell as soon as you finish the massage. When the problem flares up, dogs are given a cough suppressant and an anti-inflammatory drug such as prednisone until the problem resolves. These dogs do well wearing a harness rather than collars and with limited exercise until the cough is better. Various surgical techniques are used to attempt to cure this condition with mixed success.
Heartworms are transmitted to dogs and cats by mosquitoes. Certain types of mosquitoes carry the heartworm disease, will bite a dog, and ingest microscopic heartworm larva or microfilaria that lodge in the upper right side of the heart. Depending on the number of heartworms present and the length of time they are there, the heart is slowly damaged and enlarges.
The presence of heartworms also causes inflammatory changes in the lungs. In dogs, these changes, along with pressure from the enlarged heart on the windpipe cause a dry to moderately moist cough. By the time a cough is present the disease is quite advanced and some of the changes to the heart and lungs are irreversible.
Dogs with heartworm coughs are noticeably ill. They are thin and their fur is dry and musty. They have a worn-out look about them and are often prematurely grey around their muzzle and toes. They are usually potbellied due to an enlarged liver and excess fluid in the abdomen, and are positive on a heartworm antigen test. The cough is worse when the dog is resting. The pet's history includes the fact that they are not receiving a heartworm preventative.
After assessing the degree of damage to the body, veterinarians prescribe medication. Coughs can take up to 6 months to resolve.
Canine hookworms and roundworms can also cause a cough, which is called a verminous cough. This problem is primarily a concern when a dog accidentally eats a hookworm or roundworm larva or egg, the larva burrows through the pet's stomach or intestine into the bloodstream. When it reaches the lungs it is coughed up, re-swallowed, and then matures in the pet's intestine.
If a dog becomes infested with large numbers of larva due to an unsanitary environment the owner will notice the cough. Dewormers are commonly used to treat an infected dog. Preventing verminous coughs is a matter of sanitation. Dog feces need to be collected and disposed of properly.