The occasional cough in an otherwise healthy dog is usually nothing to worry about. But just like us, when a dog’s coughing becomes a constant or recurrent problem it can be a sign of serious illness. “My dog is coughing, what do I do??” If your dog is suddenly coughing and spluttering for air, it is definitely advised to book him in for a visit to the vet as soon as you can. The general recommendation is if your pet has developed a cough (even if not severe) that has lasted longer than 1-2 days, it is advisable to bring them in to be assessed, and after the clinical examination, your vet will advise if chest x-rays or further tests are required or not. A lot can be determined purely by listening to your pets chest.

X-ray of a dog with a heart condition

Normal chest x-ray

Coughing Related to Infections

Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites can all infect a dog’s upper respiratory tract, lung tissue, airways or a combination thereof and cause dogs to cough. Kennel cough is the most common infectious cause of coughing. It can be caused by several different viruses and bacteria, alone or in combination and is highly contagious. Though bacterial pneumonia is possible in dogs, it is less common than one would think, and most times coughing in dogs is as a result of something other than pneumonia (continue reading for some examples) and likely does not require antibiotics.

Coughing Related to Heart Disease

Many different types of heart disease can make dogs cough, essentially anything that causes the left heart to fail. When this happens, the heart is not able to pump blood forward strongly enough, causing a backlog and build of pressure to the lungs’ blood vessels, which in turn forces fluid out of the blood vessels and leaking into the lungs. The cause of the cough essentially is as a result of fluid in the lungs. One of the causes is a very common condition in small breed dogs called “mitral valve insufficiency”. This happens when one of the heart valves (mitral valve) starts leaking, eventually causing the left heart chambers to enlarge and thereafter congestive heart failure. Depending on the specific type of heart disease a dog has, a veterinarian may prescribe some combination of medications that make the heart pump more efficiently, normalize blood pressure, and reduce the abnormal build-up of fluid in the lungs.

Coughing Related to Collapsing Trachea

Small breed dogs (yorkies especially) are at increased risk for a weakening of the cartilage rings that partially encircle the trachea. This causes the trachea to collapse in on itself, which leads to tracheal irritation and a chronic cough that is often described as sounding like a goose honk. At worst, the trachea collapses completely and your dog will struggle to breathe at all. It is a difficult condition to treat and though some supportive medications are available to make the patient as comfortable as possible, because this is a structural issue, there is not too much that can be done. Management plays a large role in controlling and slowing down the condition, of which weight loss, wearing a harness instead of neck collar are of vital importance. In severe cases and for the right candidate, specialist surgery to replace the cartilaginous rings can be considered, however this is not without potential complications.

Coughing Related to Laryngeal Paralysis

Dogs with laryngeal paralysis cannot fully open the passageway into their windpipe (called the larynx) due to weakness of the nerves that control the muscles surrounding it. This leads to coughing as well as noisy raspy breathing and shortness of breath. Labradors are a breed that we commonly see with this problem. Surgery is often required to correct the condition if it is severe enough to warrant.

Reverse Sneezing

While technically not a cough, many dog owners mistake the sound of a reverse sneeze with coughing. Reverse sneezes tend to occur in clusters and are produced when something (postnasal drainage, foreign material, parasites, etc.) irritates the back of the nasal passages. It often comes on during excitement, but can also just happen spontaneously, and is usually not something to worry about.

Coughing Related to Chronic Bronchitis

When we think of bronchitis, we think of a pretty severe bacterial infection in humans which borders pneumonia. This is different in dogs when it comes to a condition called chronic bronchitis. A dog with an ongoing cough for longer than a few weeks where no other cause can be identified, chronic bronchitis is the most likely diagnosis. It is essentially tracheal inflammation and irritation of the airways as a result of smoke, dust, some sort of irritant. It can be lightly compared with asthma in humans, though they do not get asthma “attacks” as such. Dogs with chronic bronchitis tend to have a dry, hacking cough that worsens with exercise or excitement and worsens over time. Treatment includes medications that decrease inflammation and dilate airways, often cortisone in some form.

Coughing related to feline conditions

Cats are different to dogs in many ways, and that includes on how to interpret a cough in a cat. A cat usually coughs for 1 of 3 reasons: asthma, hairball, or lung cancer. As you can imagine, those three all differ in treatment, so it is important to bring your cat to the vet, so that they can listen to the chest and will likely suggest to take chest x-rays so as to rule out lung cancer. Asthma can be treated in a number of different ways and your vet will decide what which treatment option will work best for you and your cat, depending on their temperament, how severe it is, and what you are able to manage with home treatment.

Coughing Related to Cancer

The dreaded diagnosis: lung cancer. Pulmonary or lung cancer is a fairly common diagnosis in dogs and cats, and coughing can be one of the first symptoms that owners may notice. It usually does not have a good outcome, depending on whether it is a single tumour that started in the lungs, vs multiple tumours that have spread to the lungs from other parts of the body. Cancer may also be found in other parts of the respiratory tract, heart, or surrounding tissues, and not all cancers will produce a cough. Most are diagnosed by a chest x-ray in general practise, but a CT scan is the test of choice if funds allow. Chemotherapy is a possibility in some cases, surgical removal of the lump/lung is also possible, but this would require referral to a specialist clinic.

We hope this has been informative and that you have a better idea of what a cough could entail in one of your dear furchildren. We at Teva Vet always recommend bringing your pet in for a visit if it has a cough, and are there to assist in getting to the bottom of the cause so that we can treat your pet appropriately. Please contact us for any queries or questions!