6 Reasons Why Dogs Cough

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog coughing

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs cough for a variety of reasons; small breeds in particular can develop a condition known as reverse sneezing, which sounds like coughing
  • Bordetella, or kennel cough, is a respiratory infection that is usually mild and resolves without medical intervention; however, a serious bout can result in pneumonia (which also causes coughing)
  • Sometimes a dog’s cough is caused by a foreign object lodged in the throat; if the object isn’t expelled by coughing, you should call your veterinarian
  • A common and potentially serious cause of coughing in dogs, especially small breeds, is a collapsing trachea
  • Coughing can also be a symptom of heart or lung disease in dogs

Just like us, dogs cough for a lot of different reasons, and the causes range from harmless to quite serious. If your dog coughs once in a while and it passes quickly, there’s no cause for alarm. But if she’s coughing frequently or has intense coughing spells, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian.

A persistent cough in a dog is very often a symptom of an underlying problem that needs to be addressed. The following are some of the more common causes of canine coughs.

What Makes Dogs Cough?

1. Reverse sneezing — Reverse sneezing is a common condition in small breed dogs and also brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds. While a reverse sneeze is not a cough, the sound can be mistaken for coughing or choking. It’s caused by a spasm of the throat and soft palate that is triggered by an irritant, which can include simple excitement, exercise, a collar that’s too tight, pollen, or even a sudden change in temperature.

In a regular sneeze, air is pushed out through the nose. In a reverse sneeze, air is instead pulled rapidly and noisily in through the nose. The sound of a reverse sneeze can be disconcerting, and many dog parents wonder if their pet is choking or having an asthma attack. Some dogs who reverse sneeze also tend to stand with elbows spread apart, head extended or back, and eyes bulging.

Most cases of reverse sneezing don’t require treatment. However, it’s a good idea to keep track of when the episodes occur so you can determine what the probable triggers are and try to avoid them.

If the sneezing becomes chronic or episodes become more frequent or longer in duration, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out other potential health problems.

2. Kennel cough — A sudden persistent cough in an otherwise healthy dog is often due to kennel cough (Bordetella) or another similar viral or bacterial infection. These infections tend to produce deep, dry hacking coughs, sneezing, snorting, gagging, and in some cases, vomiting. There can also be coughing “fits” or spasms if the dog becomes excited or during exercise.

If your dog has recently been in contact with other dogs, he may have contracted a kennel cough infection. Symptoms usually appear from 2 to 14 days after exposure, last between 10 and 20 days, and can recur during periods of stress.

Most of these infections are mild and resolve without medical intervention. Many veterinarians immediately prescribe antibiotics, but that is never my approach. I prefer to let a dog’s body heal itself naturally, as long as he’s otherwise healthy.

Complete recovery from kennel cough can take up to 3 weeks in healthy dogs, and twice as long in older pets and those with underlying immunosuppressive conditions. Puppies can also take a bit longer to recover.

Since a serious bout of kennel cough can result in pneumonia, if your dog doesn’t start to improve on his own with the support of non-toxic remedies, or if the cough becomes progressively worse, it’s important to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

A word about the Bordetella vaccine. Unfortunately, many boarding kennels, doggy daycares, groomers and even some veterinarians require dogs be vaccinated against kennel cough. It's important to realize the only reason these facilities demand your dog be vaccinated is simply to remove liability from their businesses.

Kennel cough is most often a complex cocktail of different infections rather than a single infection. Because it's caused by a variety of different bacteria and viruses, there's no single vaccine that can provide protection for every potential infectious agent. In addition, whatever protection the vaccine might offer wears off very quickly, usually in less than a year, which means your dog will need to be revaccinated at least annually if you use pet care businesses that insist on the vaccine.

If for some reason you absolutely must allow your dog to be vaccinated, I recommend asking for the intranasal vaccine, which is significantly less toxic than the adjuvanted injectable vaccines. If in a worst-case scenario your dog receives the injectable Bordetella vaccine, I recommend you consult an integrative veterinarian about detox options.

And remember that your dog can still get kennel cough even if she has been recently vaccinated, which is why I strongly recommend avoiding this unnecessary and frequently ineffective vaccine if at all possible.

3. Pneumonia — If your dog’s cough sounds wet or is productive, it could be the result of a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Fluid or phlegm in the lungs is a red flag for pneumonia, which can have a variety of causes. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, lethargy, and difficulty breathing.

Bacterial pneumonia is caused by a pathogen, and there are several organisms that can result in infection. Typically, your dog will require antimicrobial drugs, rest, immune support, and specific supportive therapies.

Fungal pneumonia is the result of a deep fungal lung infection and is more difficult to treat. Since many dogs don’t respond to anti-fungal drugs, the treatment for fungal pneumonia will depend on what type of fungus has caused the infection. I recommend you ask your veterinarian about inhalation therapy, which is one of the most effective, direct ways to treat these types of lung infections.

Another type of pneumonia is aspiration pneumonia, also called inhalation pneumonia. This is a condition in which the lungs become inflamed and infected as the result of breathing in a foreign substance like vomit, regurgitated gastric acid, or food.

Aspiration pneumonia is life threatening, and the prognosis for most dogs with the condition is poor, so the goal should always be prevention. If you suspect your dog has aspirated something, it’s important to get her to your veterinarian or an emergency animal clinic right away.

4. Foreign object lodged in the throat — A cough that grows suddenly violent or sounds more like gagging, especially when accompanied by lip licking or attempts to swallow, could be a sign your dog has a sore throat, or something stuck in his throat.

If he’s outside when he begins coughing or has just come in from outdoors, he may have swallowed or inhaled a grass seed or other foreign object that has become wedged in his throat. If he can’t seem to cough up whatever it is, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian to prevent a potential infection or even pneumonia.

5. Collapsing trachea — A recurrent, episodic cough that sounds like a goose honk can be a sign of a collapsing trachea, especially if your dog is a small breed. Tracheal collapse is a chronic, progressive disease that can be either congenital or acquired. Dogs with the condition also typically show signs of exercise intolerance, respiratory distress, and gagging while eating or drinking.

Treatment options for a collapsing trachea include medical management, which works for about 70% of dogs with a mild form of the condition. More serious cases often require highly specialized surgery. Cartilage building supplements are also given to maintain the integrity of tracheal cartilage.

6. Heart disease — Coughing is unfortunately also a symptom of heart disease in dogs. Other signs include a bluish color to the tongue, loss of appetite, fatigue, weakness, decreased exercise endurance, a too-fast or too-slow heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. If your dog has been diagnosed with a heart condition and coughs mainly while he’s resting, lying down, or at night, it could be a sign the disease is progressing.

Treatment of heart disease in dogs depends on a variety of factors including the severity of the problem, the age and health of the animal, cost of treatment, and other considerations. A visit to a board-certified veterinary cardiologist can provide more information about the severity of your dog's condition.

There are a variety of natural therapies that can support a weakened cardiovascular system, so consult your integrative veterinarian for the best options for your pet’s individual situation.

Other conditions that can cause coughing in your dog include lung disease; chronic bronchitis, allergic bronchitis (including reactions to household scenting products) and tumors or masses in the lungs. Heartworm disease is another reason dogs may have a persistent cough.

If your dog’s cough doesn’t resolve quickly on its own, it should be investigated, and the sooner you make an appointment with your veterinarian, the better your pet’s chances for either a full recovery or a well-managed condition.

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