Updated November 22, 2023: In recent days, a number of stories have appeared in the media describing a mystery respiratory ailment in dogs. In response to reader concern, our PetMD Veterinarian Advisory Panel issued the following statement:
Multiple media outlets have recently covered a surge of respiratory illness in dogs this fall. Respiratory illness in dogs can be caused by a wide variety of bacterial, viral, and even fungal infections and are often contagious among dogs in high traffic areas.
During flu and cold season, it may be prudent to avoid crowded doggy areas such as dog parks, doggy daycare, or kennels when possible. Ask your veterinarian if vaccinations for respiratory illness should be part of your pet’s preventative care plan.
If your dog is experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing, trouble breathing, ocular or nasal discharge, or lethargy, please contact your veterinarian immediately or see an emergency veterinarian.
Not sure whether to see a vet?
What Causes a Dog To Cough?
The occasional dog 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. Knowing some of the most common causes of coughing in dogs can help you determine when you need to worry.
Coughing in dogs has many possible causes. Here are some of the many causes and available forms of treatment.
Dog Cough Due to Infections
Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites are all types of infections that can cause dogs to cough. They can infect a dog’s upper respiratory tract, lung tissue (pneumonia), airways (bronchitis), or a combination (bronchopneumonia).
Kennel cough is the most common infectious cause of coughing. It can be caused by several types of viruses and bacteria working alone or in combination.
Lungworms are parasites that cause infection in the pulmonary artery and right heart ventricle in dogs. They are not as common as heartworms, but may cause your dog to cough. Dogs can get infected by eating prey infected with the worm. They migrate out of the intestines, into the bloodstream, and into the lungs. This can cause coughing and other signs.
Treatment for Dog Coughing Due to Infection
Supportive care is an important part of treating coughs caused by infections. Dogs should be encouraged to rest, drink, and eat. Cough suppressants can help with especially severe symptoms. Humidifiers or nebulizers can help as well.
You can also make environmental changes around the home such as not smoking, not using aerosol cleaners or sprays, not burning incense, and using an air purifier.
Antibiotics are effective only against bacteria. Viral infections generally must run their course. Treatment typically requires deworming medication such as fenbendazole, and advanced respiratory support for severely affected dogs. Ask your veterinarian if an immune boosting supplement will help your pup during their recovery.
Dog Cough Due to Chronic Bronchitis
When a dog is coughing due to chronic inflammation of the airways and no other cause can be identified, chronic bronchitis is the most likely diagnosis. Dogs with chronic bronchitis tend to have a dry, hacking cough that worsens with exercise or excitement and over time.
Treatment of Dog Coughing Due to Chronic Bronchitis
Treatment includes medications that decrease inflammation (such as fluticasone or prednisolone) and dilate airways (albuterol or terbutaline). Ideally, these medications are given by inhalation, with inhalers specially made for dogs, to reduce potential side effects. They can also be given with an oral medication if necessary.
Dog Cough Due to Allergies
Allergies are immune system hypersensitivities to substances in the environment called allergens. These can include dusts, pollens, certain plants, smoke, other animal dander, food, insects, and even human dander. When exposed to these substances, the immune system becomes sensitive and can overreact to future interaction with them.
Allergies can cause itching, sneezing, wheezing, runny nose/eyes, vomiting, diarrhea, and coughing. Coughing due to allergies is secondary to inflammation in the airways and lungs.
Treatment for Dog Coughing Due to Allergies
Treatment is based on the underlying cause of the allergies. It can include environmental changes such as using air purifiers and humidifiers and eliminating certain allergens. Treatment may also include using bronchodilators to open the airways, anti-inflammatory medications such as steroids, antibiotics, and in severe cases, other stronger medications such as cyclosporine.
Dog Cough Due to Reverse Sneezing
While technically a “reverse sneeze” is not a cough, many dog parents mistake the sound with dog coughing. Reverse sneezes tend to happen in clusters when something like postnasal drainage, foreign material, inflammation, or parasites irritates the back of a dog’s nasal passages.
Just like normal sneezes, occasional reverse sneezes are nothing to worry about. If they become severe or frequent, or you see nasal discharge or a change in the symmetry of your dog’s face (bulging eyes or sinuses), contact your veterinarian.
Dog Cough Due to Heart Disease
Treatment for Dog Cough Due to Heart Disease
Depending on the type of heart disease your dog has, your veterinarian may prescribe a combination of medications that allow the heart to pump more efficiently, normalize blood pressure, and reduce the abnormal buildup of fluid. These medications include pimobendan, ACE inhibitors, or diuretics. Other interventions like surgery or the placement of a pacemaker may be appropriate in some cases.
Dog Cough Due to Collapsing Trachea
Small dogs are more at risk for a weakening of the cartilage rings that partially encircle the trachea. This causes the trachea to collapse on itself when the dog breathes in. This leads to tracheal irritation and a chronic cough that is often described as sounding like a “goose honk”.
Treatment for Dog Coughing Due to Collapsing Trachea
Medications that dilate airways, decrease inflammation, suppress coughing, and treat secondary infections can help. Humidifiers or nebulizers can help too, as well as environmental changes such as not smoking, not using aerosol cleaners or sprays, not burning incense, and adding an air purifier to the home.
In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to provide these dogs with an acceptable quality of life.
Dog Cough Due to Pulmonary Hypertension
Pulmonary hypertension refers to high blood pressure in the lungs that reduces blood flow and oxygen delivery to the lungs. Pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure within the pulmonary arteries makes it harder for your dog to get enough oxygen.
Pulmonary hypertension can be caused by chronic lung disease, heartworm disease, or conditions that cause the body to create blood clots within the pulmonary arteries (pulmonary thromboembolisms).
Treatment for Dog Coughing Due to Pulmonary Hypertension
This condition is diagnosed via echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart, by measuring the pulmonary artery pressure. Therapy is typically palliative rather than curative. Medications for pulmonary hypertension are life-long in most cases. This is usually treated with sildenafil.
Dog Cough Due to Heartworm Disease
Heartworms can cause dogs to cough. Heartworms are transmitted when a mosquito bites an infected dog, picks up the larval form of the parasite, and then bites another dog and passes the larvae to them.
The larvae migrate to the heart and lungs of the newly infected dog, where they mature into spaghetti-like adults. Their presence causes inflammation that can lead to coughing and potentially fatal heart and lung damage.
Treatment of Dog Cough Due to Heartworms
Medications that prevent heartworm disease are extremely safe and effective. If a dog was not on heartworm medication and becomes infected, the treatment is costly, lasts six months or longer, and requires intensive, often painful injections. Preventive medication is the best source of care for preventing heartworm disease in dogs.
Dog Cough Due to Foreign Objects Stuck in the Throat/Airways
Dogs will sometimes inhale foreign material or objects that then get stuck in their airways. The body’s natural response is to try to cough it out. If this is unsuccessful, the material must be removed by a veterinarian using an endoscope or through surgery.
Dog Cough Due to Foxtails
Most types of grass produce bristles or clusters with sharp “blades” that can penetrate a dog’s skin. These are commonly called grass awns or foxtails. The blade can then migrate into the lungs or chest cavity and lead to dog coughing. In more serious cases, this can develop into pneumonia, lung abscesses, pneumothorax, pyothorax, or a combination of these conditions.
Treatment of Dog Cough Due to Foxtails
Foxtails often need to be manually or surgically removed in addition to treating any underlying damaged caused by the foxtails.
Dog Cough Due to Laryngeal Paralysis
Dogs with laryngeal paralysis cannot fully open the passageway into their windpipe (larynx) due to weakness of the nerves that control the surrounding muscles. This leads to coughing as well as noisy breathing and shortness of breath.
Treatment of Dog Cough Due to Laryngeal Paralysis
Surgery to permanently hold one side of the larynx open can help ease the breathing of dogs with laryngeal paralysis, but it also puts them at higher risk for developing aspiration pneumonia, which is another cause of coughing in dogs.
Dog Cough Due to Cancer
Coughing can be one of the first symptoms that owners notice when a dog has cancer of the lungs, other parts of the respiratory tract, heart, or surrounding tissues. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or palliative care.
Treatment for Dog Cough Due to Cancer
Treatment for any type of dog cancer depends on the underlying cancer, and requires additional testing and recommended treatments based on the type and stage of cancer.
Dog Cough Due to Rat Poison Ingestion
A class of rat poisons called anticoagulants work by preventing blood from clotting, which results in bleeding. Ingesting this type of rat poison can cause a dog to bleed into their chest cavity, which can lead to coughing.
Treatment of Dog Cough Due to Rat Poison Ingestion
A dog that has ingested rat poison must be taken to an emergency clinic immediately to prevent life-threatening bleeding.
Never use rat poison around dogs. Invest in a humane method of rodent control, like a no-kill trap, and practice trap and release.
Dog Cough Due to Esophagitis
Esophagitis is a condition where the esophagus becomes inflamed. It’s similar to gastro-esophageal-reflux disorder (or GERD) in humans. Acidic stomach fluid moves from the stomach and up the esophagus, irritating the lining.
This can be caused by gastrointestinal upset, certain foods, prolonged anesthesia, and some medications, particularly doxycycline. Symptoms include drooling, decreased appetite, lip smacking, regurgitation, and dog coughing due to pain/inflammation.
Treatment Dog Coughing Due to Esophagitis
Dog Cough Due to Tumors in the Larynx and Trachea
The larynx is a flexible tube-like structure located at the top of the trachea (airway tube). It is made of semi-flexible cartilage and helps produce sound/vocalization as air passes through it. The trachea is composed of cartilage rings and allows oxygen to enter the lungs and carbon dioxide to exit the mouth.
Tumors or masses that growth in the larynx or trachea are rare, but they can impede the ability to breath, swallow, eat, and drink.
Treatment of Dog Cough Due to Tumors in the Larynx and Trachea
Treatment includes surgery to remove the tumor, often followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
Dog Cough Due to Aspiration Pneumonia
Aspiration pneumonia is inflammation or infection in the lungs that’s usually caused by inhaling food, water, regurgitated matter, or vomit. This leads to bacterial growth in the lungs, which causes inflammation, trouble breathing, dog coughing, and sometimes decreased oxygen levels.
Treatment of Dog Coughing Due to Aspiration Pneumonia
Treatment includes medications that treat bacterial infection, such as antibiotics; treatment of the underlying cause of the aspiration pneumonia; and sometimes hospitalization with oxygen therapy, intravenous fluids, and other systemic medications.
Dog Cough Due to Inhaling Indoor Irritants
Household sprays and airborne irritants can cause your dog to cough. Some of these include dust mites, fireplace ash, dandruff, litter box dust, secondhand smoke, mold, household sprays, air fresheners, and even deodorants.
Not every dog exposed to these irritants will cough, but a dog with an underlying respiratory condition like bronchitis or one that’s more sensitive to a particular trigger may be more susceptible.
Treatment of Dog Cough Due to Inhaling Indoor Irritants
Your vet will work with you to determine what irritants may be causing your dog to cough.
Dog Cough Due to Lung Lobe Torsion
A dog’s lung can rotate and twist, a condition called lung lobe torsion. The lung turns over on itself, blocking the airway. In addition to coughing, lung lobe torsion can result in symptoms like pain, fever, lethargy, and a dog to cough up blood.
Lung lobe torsion is more common in dogs with fluid in the chest, heart disease, or another condition.
Treatment of Dog Cough Due to Lung Lobe Torsion
Treatment of lung lobe torsion in dogs is typically surgery.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Coughing in Dogs
The first step in treating a dog’s cough is figuring out the underlying cause that is triggering the dog cough. Your veterinarian will ask questions about your dog’s health history, travel, and preventive care, and when the dog coughing symptoms started and how the dog’s coughing has progressed.
They will also complete a physical exam. Sometimes a tentative diagnosis can be reached at this point, but reaching a definitive diagnosis often requires testing.
Depending on your dog’s unique situation, some combination of the following tests may be necessary:
Blood chemistry panel
Complete blood cell count
Advanced testing may be done to screen for various respiratory infections (bacteria, viruses, fungus)
Echocardiography (ultrasound of the heart)
Measurement of blood pressure
Examination of fluid samples taken from the airways
Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy to assess the esophagus and stomach lining
Bronchoscopy to assess the trachea and major airways (bronchi) that go to the lungs
Based on the diagnosis of your dog’s cough, your vet will determine a treatment plan to treat the underlying cause that is triggering the cough.
What To Do if Your Dog Is Coughing
If your dog is coughing frequently and/or has any of the following signs, seek immediate veterinary care:
Coughing up blood
Nasal discharge, especially if it’s green or yellow
Eye discharge, especially if it’s green or yellow
Heavy or rapid breathing
Protrusion of one or both eyes
Change in facial symmetry (face looks strange or off)
A whistling sound when breathing
Change in bark noise
Exercise intolerance (getting winded/tired more easily)
Never give your dog over-the-counter cough syrups meant for humans. Depending on the diagnosis for your dog’s cough, follow all instructions from your veterinarian for medications and be sure to complete all courses of antibiotics.
Featured Image: iStock/miodrag ignjatovic
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