What to Worry About With Dog Coughing

Clare Deming
coughing dog

While many types of coughs are not immediately dangerous to your dog's health, any dog who is holding their head and neck out in an unusual fashion while coughing or is having trouble breathing should see a veterinarian immediately. Coughing in a dog can indicate several types of problems. Some of these can be self-limiting or minor problems, while others can be chronic or life-threatening medical conditions.

Types of Coughing Sounds

When a dog coughs, it can sound frightening. It is hard to identify the cause of a cough based on how it sounds, but knowing what to listen for can help you determine what to do next. The pet site vetStreet identifies a few different types of sounds you might hear if your dog is coughing:

  • Dry Cough - A dry cough can sound deep and hacking. It can get worse with excitement or exercise. A dry sounding cough is often associated with kennel cough.
  • Wet Cough - A wet cough will sound like your dog is trying to bring up phlegm or has congestion in his throat. A wet cough can indicate pneumonia, congestive heart failure, fungal infection, or parasites.
  • Goose Honk Cough - This type of cough is most common in small-breed dogs. It sounds like a goose honking, and will usually get worse with exercise or excitement. A goose honk cough usually occurs due to collapsing trachea or other airway disease.

However, for many coughing dogs, the breed and age of the dog may be more important in categorizing the possible causes than the sound of the cough.

Kennel Cough

This cause of coughing is a very common infectious disease in dogs, similar to the common cold in humans. Kennel cough can be caused by the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica or some viruses.

Common symptoms of kennel cough include:

  • A dry, hacking cough that can be elicited by palpation of the throat
  • Gagging or retching
  • Nasal discharge
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Fever

Mild cases of kennel cough may not require treatment. In those that do, your vet will likely prescribe antibiotics and a cough suppressant.

Pneumonia

Two main types of pneumonia (lung infection) can occur in dogs: infectious pneumonia and aspiration pneumonia.

Types of Pneumonia

vet listening to dog's lungs

In infectious pneumonia, bacteria travel from the throat down into the lungs. Infectious pneumonia is particularly common in puppies that first develop kennel cough secondary to Bordetella. However, pneumonia can also occur as a secondary complication of a viral infection or with other bacteria. Geriatric dogs, or those with other medical conditions such as diabetes or Cushing's disease, may also be at increased risk of contracting pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia occurs when a dog vomits or regurgitates but the airway doesn't close off to prevent liquid from entering the trachea and lungs. Conditions that predispose a pet to aspiration include laryngeal paralysis, megaesophagus or anesthesia. Aspiration of this liquid causes chemical damage to the lungs which leads to inflammation and later bacterial infection.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Symptoms of either type of pneumonia can include:

  • A wet cough
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Labored breathing
  • Thick nasal discharge
  • Fever
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Loss of appetite

Diagnosis of Pneumonia

Your veterinarian can diagnose pneumonia using a combination of a physical exam (listening to the lungs) and chest x-rays. Blood tests can be helpful in finding other factors that may contribute to any underlying causes. Sometimes, your vet may order a special test to obtain a sample from the lungs to determine which type of bacteria are causing the infection, and which antibiotic will work best. For dogs with aspiration pneumonia, your vet may need additional tests to diagnose the underlying cause of the aspiration.

Treatment of Pneumonia

Treatment for pneumonia in dogs will vary with the severity of the disease. For a mild case in which the dog is still eating and does not have any labored breathing, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and possibly a bronchodilator. Your vet will usually avoid prescribing cough suppressants, as coughing can be helpful to get secretions out of the airways.

In a more severe case of pneumonia in which your dog is not eating, has a high fever or has any labored breathing, hospitalization is often required. The veterinarian may administer oxygen in a special chamber, intravenous fluids and antibiotics, and a bronchodilator. Nebulization with saline or an antibiotic can also be helpful.

Respiratory therapy can help your dog recover from pneumonia as well. This kind of therapy is usually called coupage, and the treatment aids in loosening secretions in the lungs so that your pet can cough them up. Coupage is often done in hospitalized patients; however, it can also be done at home.

Most dogs with pneumonia recover with treatment. Your dog may need antibiotics for several weeks, and chest x-rays can help determine whether the infection has been cured.

Tracheal Collapse

According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, tracheal collapse occurs most commonly in small breed dogs that are middle-aged or older. The trachea, or windpipe, is made up of several c-shaped rings of cartilage. In some dogs, the cartilage weakens and starts to flatten, narrowing the airway. This can lead to inflammation of the airways and coughing.

Symptoms of Tracheal Collapse

dog chest xray

Symptoms of tracheal collapse include:

  • A goose honk cough
  • Labored breathing
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Fainting episodes
  • Blue appearance to the tongue and gums

Symptoms of tracheal collapse often worsen with excitement or exercise.

Diagnosis of Tracheal Collapse

Your vet will suspect tracheal collapse if your dog is a small breed and is exhibiting the classic goose honk cough. In most cases, the diagnosis can be confirmed by your veterinarian by taking an x-ray of the neck and chest. For some dogs, other tests may be needed, such as fluoroscopy or endoscopy.

Treatment of Tracheal Collapse

Treatment of tracheal collapse usually requires medication from your veterinarian. Sedatives, anti-inflammatory drugs and bronchodilators may help. If your dog has chronic airway disease, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics as well. In severe cases, a dog may need to be hospitalized for oxygen and monitoring. Dogs with severe recurrent tracheal collapse may need surgery to have a good quality of life. In the traditional surgery, plastic rings are implanted in the neck to help support the trachea. A newer technique involves placing an expandable stent through the mouth and into the trachea.

You can reduce the risk of future episodes of tracheal collapse by ensuring your pet is a healthy weight. Also, you can:

  • Avoid using neck leads, and switch to a harness.
  • Try to minimize excitement.
  • Avoid strong fumes from cigarette smoke or cleaning products.

Chronic Bronchitis

Dogs with chronic bronchitis develop a cough over at least two months. This condition occurs when the lower airways (bronchi) become irritated and develop ongoing inflammation. It is most common in older dogs, small breeds and obese dogs. Chronic bronchitis is an irreversible long-term condition.

Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • A dry cough or a wet cough
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Coughing upon first waking up
  • Labored breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing with excitement

Diagnosis of Chronic Bronchitis

Your veterinarian will initially diagnose chronic bronchitis by listening to your dog's lungs and taking chest x-rays. These initial tests will help rule out other types of lung disease, but a specific diagnosis of chronic bronchitis requires a bronchoalveolar lavage to collect a sample from your dog's lungs. The lab will then evaluate the sample under the microscope to determine what types of cells are present to reach a diagnosis.

Treatment and Management of Chronic Bronchitis

breathing treatment

Treatment of chronic bronchitis can include a variety of medications, including oral corticosteroids, a bronchodilator, cough suppressant or corticosteroids administered using an inhaler and special adapter. In some cases, a short course of antibiotics can improve symptoms. Serious cases of chronic bronchitis can require hospitalization for oxygen therapy, inhaled bronchodilators or rapid-acting corticosteroids.

Weight loss is important to help manage your dog's chronic bronchitis. Changing from a neck lead to a harness and avoiding irritants such as cigarette smoke or strongly scented products can also be useful. Bacteria in the mouth from dental disease can lead to complications, so if your dog has significant tartar and periodontal disease, this should be treated by your veterinarian.

Congestive Heart Failure

One of the most serious causes of coughing in dogs is congestive heart failure. This occurs when the heart cannot pump effectively due to a leaky valve, heart enlargement or muscle diseases of the heart. Fluid builds up in the lungs in some types of heart failure, leading to respiratory distress and coughing.

Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure

Symptoms of congestive heart failure include:

  • Intolerance to exercise

  • Rapid breathing

  • Difficulty breathing

  • A wet cough

  • Fainting

Diagnosis and Treatment for Congestive Heart Failure

If you think that your dog may have congestive heart failure, an immediate trip to the veterinarian is needed. Some pets with severe respiratory distress will require oxygen and medications before any tests can even be done. Your veterinarian may make a preliminary diagnosis of heart failure based on the symptoms, the age and breed of dog, and by listening to the lungs for sounds associated with fluid buildup or a heart murmur. Diagnosis of congestive heart failure can usually be made from a physical exam and chest X-rays. For some dogs, an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) may be necessary, but in many cases this cannot be performed immediately.

Most dogs with congestive heart failure will require hospitalization, at least for a few hours but possibly several days. Your dog will usually receive oxygen, a diuretic, an angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor drug (enalapril or benazepril), and pimobendan which helps heart function.

dog choking on object

Foreign Body

An uncommon cause of coughing in dogs is a foreign body lodged in the airway or lungs. This can happen suddenly and result in an immediately life-threatening airway obstruction in which your dog is choking. In other cases, a smaller piece of foreign material like a rock, grass awn or grass seed can work its way into the body and become lodged in the trachea or lungs.

Symptoms of a Foreign Body in the Airway

Symptoms of a foreign body in the airways include:

  • Coughing
  • Sudden gasping and respiratory distress
  • Collapse
  • Blue gums and tongue
  • Fever
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Loss of appetite

Diagnosis and Treatment for Sudden Choking

There are several ways to diagnose a foreign body in the airways. If your pet is actively choking, you can attempt to perform a modified Heimlich maneuver briefly before getting to the vet's office as soon as possible. The veterinarian can diagnose a sudden airway obstruction based on the characteristics of how the dog is breathing. Immediate oxygen therapy, sedation and retrieval of the object is necessary. It the object cannot be quickly removed, the dog may need to be intubated to help with breathing, or a tracheostomy can be performed to create an alternate airway in the neck.

Diagnosis and Treatment for a Chronic Foreign Body

For a more chronic foreign body, your vet can sometimes make the diagnosis using x-rays of the neck and chest. In some cases, the vet may want a CT scan, fluoroscopy or bronchoscopy.

Treatment for a chronic foreign body will depend upon the exact location of the object. Sometimes the vet can retrieve the foreign body using bronchoscopy. During bronchoscopy, the pet is placed under anesthesia and a small fiber-optic scope is passed down the trachea to the level of the obstruction. Tiny instruments are used to grasp the item and retrieve it. If the object is not accessible using bronchoscopy, surgery may be necessary.

Cancer

Unfortunately, cancer occurs commonly in dogs as they age. Of all types of cancer, lung tumors are uncommon but do develop more frequently in large breed dogs. Brachycephalic dogs (short-nosed breeds) have an increased risk of lung cancer when exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke. Lung cancer can occur as a primary tumor or as metastatic disease, which starts out elsewhere in the body and spreads to the lungs in the late stages of the disease.

Symptoms of Lung Cancer

According to Caninecancer.com, symptoms of lung cancer in dogs include:

  • Coughing, usually chronic
  • Labored breathing
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Coughing up phlegm or blood
  • Limping

Diagnosis and Treatment Options for Lung Cancer

Lung cancer can mimic many other diseases that cause coughing in dogs. Your vet can usually give a preliminary diagnosis with a chest x-ray, but confirmation may require a lot of additional tests or a biopsy.

Treatment for a primary lung tumor will probably involve surgery. If chest surgery is not something that an elderly dog can withstand, your vet may attempt to keep him comfortable with corticosteroids, pain medications or appetite stimulants. Metastatic lung disease is an advanced form of cancer and treatment is often not successful. Diagnosis of the main tumor may be necessary in order to best direct the treatment. Some types of lung cancer can be treated with chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Fungal Infections

petri dish with blastomyces dermatitidis
Blastomyces Dermatitidis

Fungal infections can cause coughing in dogs, particularly one form caused by Blastomyces dermatitidis. This organism grows in wet, sandy, acidic soil that is rich in organic matter. It is found near water, in the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee and St. Lawrence River valleys. Sometimes the fungus can also be found in the mid-Atlantic region, parts of Canada, and along the southern Great Lakes. Blastomycosis most commonly occurs in young, male dogs.

Symptoms of Pulmonary (Lung) Blastomycosis

Blastomycosis often affects the lungs, but other organs are also susceptible to infection. Symptoms can include:

  • Coughing
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Respiratory distress
  • Blue gums or tongue
  • Fever
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Eye changes
  • Draining sores on the skin
  • Limping

Diagnosis and Treatment of Blastomycosis

Your veterinarian may diagnose blastomycosis in one of several ways. If he can obtain a sample from infected lymph nodes, lungs or skin, the lab can evaluate the sample under the microscope to look for the organism. Chest x-rays will often show a characteristic pattern of lung changes, but this does not confirm a fungal infection. Blood tests can also be performed, but have to be interpreted together with the other tests.

Treatment for blastomycosis typically requires oral antifungal drugs for a long period. A specific urine test can be used to monitor whether the disease has been cleared or not. In severely sick pets, hospitalization for intravenous fluids and stronger anti-fungal drugs may be necessary.

Heartworm Disease

dog covered in mosquitoes
Mosquitoes transmit heartworm disease

Many dogs take a monthly medication to prevent heartworm infection. This serious parasitic disease is transmitted by mosquitoes and can ultimately cause coughing in dogs. Heartworm disease is more common in the Gulf coast states, the southern Atlantic coast and the Mississippi River valley; however, it has been reported across the United States and even in Canada.

Symptoms of Canine Heartworm Disease

Symptoms of canine heartworm disease include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A dry cough
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Congestive heart failure

Your veterinarian can diagnose heartworm disease with a blood test. Treatment involves a combination of oral medications and injections given in the hospital.

Other Viral Infections

Dogs are susceptible to other viral infections that affect the lungs. These can include canine influenza or canine distemper. These diseases are highly contagious, but are mostly preventable with vaccination.

Symptoms of Viral Infections

Symptoms of both canine influenza and distemper can include:

  • A wet cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Nasal discharge
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Pneumonia

Additional Symptoms of Canine Distemper

With canine distemper, severe cases can also show:

  • Conjunctivitis
  • Labored breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Eye changes
  • Neurological symptoms
  • A skin rash

Diagnosis and Treatment of Viral Infections

Generally, a vet will use lab tests to diagnose a viral infection. Samples can be taken from the back of the throat, the conjunctiva of the eye, the blood or even the urine. Treatment for these infections involves dealing with the symptoms to make your pet more comfortable. Treatments will vary with the severity of the infection. Vets often use antibiotics to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections.

Beat That Cough

If your dog has been coughing, it is important to look for other symptoms and take him to your veterinarian, especially if the cough persists for a couple days or is accompanied by labored breathing. With some quick attention, a few tests, and probably some medication, your canine companion will be on the mend in no time.

What to Worry About With Dog Coughing