Mr. Businessman is standing in front of me, trying to wretch. His dog sits quietly at his feet, looking up in adoration at his businessman making strangulating coughing and gagging sounds.
“You see, it’s kind of like this, Doc.”
The man gulps and extends his head and neck toward me. He attempts a half-belch, half-cough and half-vomit, all at the same time. For a moment, I am afraid he will either bring up his lunch in my face or blow himself up.
My clients at the veterinary clinic try to reproduce their dog’s cough all the time. That’s because kennel cough, the most common reason an otherwise healthy dog begins to cough, is something between a cough and a gag and an ungodly sound coming from deep in the dog’s innermost sanctum.
Most coughs are caused by irritations in the respiratory tract itself. An irritant or infection bothers the airways, triggering a cough.
Coughing in a dog can be tricky to diagnose. Your history of the cough (and imitation) helps your veterinarian significantly. The dog’s age, breed, lifestyle and the veterinary physical exam round out the early rule-out list.
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Possible Causes of Coughing in a Dog
1. Kennel cough
Kennel cough (really a bad name for infectious tracheobronchitis) is contagious and can run through a boarding facility like wildfire — but many dogs show up with “kennel cough” who have never been outside their own home or immediate neighborhood.
Many people think their dog has something caught in its throat when the dog actually has a severely irritated throat from kennel cough. Dogs with something stuck in their airway are, quite frankly, in dire distress. Kennel cough dogs, on the other hand, have an annoying, possibly distressing cough, but not a life-threatening condition.
Kennel cough improves with time and medications if indicated. These dogs should be kept away from other dogs if you don’t want to anger your family members and neighbors.
2. Chronic bronchitis
This condition can be a bit more difficult to diagnose.
Chronic bronchitis dogs may be mistaken for kennel cough dogs at the outset, but chronic bronchitis does not improve with time and medications usually dispensed for kennel cough. Kennel cough usually improves in 1–3 weeks with or without antibiotics and cough suppressants. Chronic bronchitis dogs continue to cough.
Chronic bronchitis is thought to be immune-mediated or allergic in nature. Just like people suffering from asthma and allergies who need to use carefully prescribed corticosteroids, we do the same with dogs. In order to suppress the intense inflammation in the airways, and thus relieve the coughing, steroids such as prednisone may be needed.
Inhalers, bronchodilators, doxycycline, cough suppressants, and cutting down on smoke and aerosols may also be part of the treatment plan.
3. Collapsing trachea
The trachea is the windpipe that brings air from the nose to the lungs. If the trachea is weak or collapses as air is brought into the body, the dog exhibits a dry, hacking cough.
Although any dog can exhibit collapsing trachea, this is most common in small breed dogs such as poodles, Chihuahuas and Pomeranians. A collapsing trachea is worsened by heat, exercise and obesity.
Dogs mildly affected by tracheal collapse exhibit an intermittent dry cough. If the collapsing trachea is extreme, the dog can sadly have a lot of difficulty breathing. The aim of treatment is control, not cure.
In this video, Dr. Greg Martinez, DVM, discusses more about collapsed trachea treatment:
A cough can be present in chronic heart failure because of the development of pulmonary edema.
By the time they develop a cough related to heart failure, these dogs are usually showing some shortness of breath or labored breathing — in other words, having quite a hard time because of a failing heart.
Heart medications and diuretics help lessen the cough and support the heart, but the prognosis is guarded.
A word about diagnosing the above conditions: Many patients, particularly our smaller fluff-butts, can have more than one of these cough-producing conditions. It would not be unusual to have a little poodle with a heart murmur, some chronic bronchitis and a collapsing trachea.
These dogs are sick. True pneumonia is uncommon. Older dogs, sick puppies or immunocompromised canines are most susceptible. These cases require aggressive care, usually hospitalization and IV antibiotics.
Dogs with cancer in the lungs have varying degrees of cough depending on the type and extent of disease. Most of these cancers are metastatic, meaning there is cancer somewhere else in the body that has metastasized to the lungs. Lung cancer of any sort carries a poor prognosis.
7. Fungal pneumonia
Fungal infections are found in specific geographic areas of the country. These coughs are serious and require aggressive treatment.
8. Heartworm disease
If a dog is coughing from heartworm disease, it means the dog is already in heart failure from the damage done by the heartworms. Certainly, history helps a lot here. Prognosis is guarded even with treatment, but treatment should be attempted.
Take-home advice: Don’t let a cough go on too long before getting it checked out by a veterinarian. The majority of dogs can be helped. As any of us know who have had a cough ourselves, the longer you cough without relief, the worse it can get.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Sept. 10, 2014.