The coughing dog

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay.
Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay.

As it is in humans, a cough is a common problem in dogs. A cough may not require veterinary care but if a dog is coughing for several days with no signs of subsiding, it’s best to see a veterinarian.

There are many causes of coughing in dogs. Some coughs sound moist and others are harsh and dry. Moist coughs indicate the accumulation of fluid (water, blood, or pus) in the airways or lungs. Your description of the nature of the cough, when the cough occurs, and if anything brings on coughing, can be helpful in pinpointing the cause of coughing in your dog.

What are some of the common causes of coughing?

  • Bacterial and viral infections like kennel cough or infectious tracheobronchitis can cause coughing and are most likely to affect young animals. Coughing due to kennel cough usually becomes apparent within a few weeks of exposure of your dog to other dogs in a kennel or show environment and usually resolves without any treatment. If the cough is severe enough, cough suppressants can be given to suppress the frequency of cough. If the cough does not subside in a week to 10 days, your pet should be evaluated for other diseases of the lungs or airways.
  • Tracheal collapse and irritation can cause coughing when the pet is excited, tugging on its collar, or drinking water. Tracheal collapse occurs most commonly in middle to aged overweight small breed dogs. The cough is often described as sounding like a goose honking. Treatment for tracheal collapse includes weight reduction and intermittent use of cough suppressants and sedatives. Surgery can be performed in dogs with severe collapse that don’t respond to weight reduction and cough suppressants but often surgery is not effective. Dogs with a collapsing trachea cough more at night than during the day.
  • Heart disease can cause coughing that may follow exercise or excitement. Cough due to heart disease may be accompanied by a murmur or abnormal heart rate or rhythm. Middle-aged to older, small breed dogs are more likely to have heart disease. Cough caused by heart disease can be diagnosed by a chest X-ray, an electrocardiogram (which measures the electrical activity of the heart), and often by a heart ultrasound. Heart disease may also cause heart enlargement and put pressure on the airways causing cough or the heart may fail and lead to edema of the lungs.
  • Heartworm disease occurs in dogs and cats and is most common in regions that have lots of mosquitoes. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes picking up larva and passing them with their bite. From there, larva make their way to the heart and lungs, which can cause damage that can be fatal. There are many effective preventative medications for heartworm disease, however, once heartworm disease forms treatment is risky and costly.
  • The larynx and esophagus cause coughing most often when the pet consumes food. The larynx normally closes when food is swallowed to prevent food from entering the trachea. If the larynx is diseased, it may not close when food is swallowed resulting in food entering the trachea. Food may pool in an abnormally dilated esophagus. The food then may pass to the mouth and down the airways into the lungs causing pneumonia and cough.
  • Foreign materials like seeds, grass, and string can cause coughing if the materials travel through the nose or irritate the airway. In addition to causing coughing, foreign materials can travel down the airways and through the lung causing an infection with a large amount of pus to develop in the space surrounding the lung. This disease is called pyothorax.
  • Lung cancer and other cancers can cause coughing, especially in older dogs. The lungs receive a large amount of blood that flows through the rest of the body. Lung cancers in dogs most often originate from other organs and are transferred from those organs through the blood to the lung. Some cancers may be controllable with anti-cancer medication. Single lung tumors that originate within the lung may be surgically removed in some cases.

What tests can determine why my dog is coughing?

There are a number of tests to identify the cause of a cough, including a blood profile to screen multiple organs, a stool exam to look for parasites or their eggs, chest X-rays, or X-rays of the trachea. The larger airways can be examined using a flexible scope called a bronchoscope in a procedure called bronchcoscopy. Large foreign bodies in the airways can be removed by bronchoscopy. Sterile fluid can also be flushed into the airways to collect samples for culture or microscopic exam.

What are some of the treatments for coughing?

How to treat a coughing dog depends upon the disease diagnosed and may include cough suppressants, antibiotics for bacterial infections, and steroids for allergic lung disease. Avoid self-medicating your pet as the treatment for one cause of cough may be the wrong treatment for another type of cough.

This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.