Coughing is a common symptom in dogs. Always speak to a vet straight away if coughing is associated with breathlessness, as some causes of coughing can have life-threatening complications.
Sudden bouts of coughing are usually caused by an infection like Kennel Cough. Long-term coughing is commonly caused by tracheal collapse, chronic bronchitis or heart disease.
What to do
What to do if your dog is coughing
Speak to a vet straight away if a cough is associated with difficulty breathing, pale or bluish gums, exercise intolerance, reluctance to move or severe lethargy. Emergency treatment may be needed.
If the cough is mild and they are otherwise well, they may only need monitoring for a few days. See below for a few tips to help them recover. If you are worried, a telemedicine consult with a vet may help decide the best thing to do.
Call your vet for an appointment if your dog has been coughing for more than two weeks, even if the cough is mild and they are otherwise well.
What causes coughing in dogs?
- Infections are common, such as Kennel cough. These usually resolve on their own.
- Parasites can also cause coughing, such as Lungworm and Heartworm.
- Tracheal collapse is a common cause of coughing, especially in small breeds. This is when the windpipe partially folds over itself and narrows the airway. This is a chronic problem but rarely serious.
- Laryngeal paralysis is relatively common, especially in large breed, older dogs. In this condition, the entrance to the airways stops opening fully when the animal breathes in.
- Foreign bodies, such as blades of grass or seeds, can find their way into a dog’s windpipe and cause sudden and intense bouts of coughing and retching.
- Heart disease can cause coughing because of the dilated heart pushing against the bronchi or fluid buildup in the lungs.
- Dogs can develop chronic bronchitis as they get older without an obvious cause.
- Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome can sometimes cause coughing.
- Diseases that affect swallowing, such as megaoesophagus, can lead to aspiration pneumonia and coughing.
- Tumours or cancer that have grown or spread to the chest may eventually cause coughing.
It can be difficult to tell coughing and reverse sneezing apart. It may help if you make a video of what is happening to show your vet.
Rare causes of coughing in dogs
- Electrocution, head trauma, strangulation or near-drowning accidents can cause fluid to build up in the lungs and cause coughing and respiratory problems.
- Pulmonary Thromboembolism (a blood clot stopping blood flow to a part of the lungs) is a rare cause of coughing. This is more common in dogs suffering from Cushing’s disease.
- Lung lobe torsion, where a part of the lung twists around and stops air flow, is another rare cause of coughing.
- Pulmonary Hypertension can also cause coughing. This condition is usually secondary to other diseases, such as heart disease, heartworm, blood clots or Cushing’s disease.
When to worry
When to worry about coughing in dogs
Contact a vet straight away if your dog has any of the following:
- Trouble breathing
- Pale or bluish gums
- Inability to settle down to rest
- Not eating anything
- Tired or breathing fast after minimal exercise or movement
Even if no other symptoms are present, a vet check is recommended if the cough is frequent, severe or has been present for more than two weeks.
Preventing coughing in dogs
Regular vaccination against Kennel cough will protect against infection.
Regular deworming treatment may prevent the development of parasitic lung or heart disease. Specific dewormers may be required depending on where you live or travel to.
Regular health checks may allow early detection of heart disease and other conditions.
If Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome is significant and detected early, corrective surgery may prevent more serious disease in the future.
Diagnosis of coughing in dogs
A basic visual examination can be very useful if concerned about a cough. Evaluating the rate and type of breathing, the colour of the mucous membranes, general behaviour and body language can assist in determining how serious the problem might be.
Detailed auscultation provides a lot of information about the status of the lungs and bronchi.
Frequently, x-rays or ultrasound are recommended. This is to confirm or evaluate the extent of any lung issues suspected on auscultation.
How to help your coughing dog
Do not hesitate to contact a vet if the cough is severe or your dog is unwell in other ways.
Your dog may find it uncomfortable to eat and swallow. Consider feeding soft or wet food until the cough gets better.
Being exposed to steam may help with congestion in their airways. This can be achieved by having them in the bathroom when the shower is being used.
Cough suppressants are not usually recommended as they may mask the symptoms and worsen the congestion in the airways. Please contact a vet for an assessment before giving any medications.
How a vet helps a coughing dog
If your dog is very unwell, your vet may advise that it stays in a high-oxygen environment for a period of time. This is often life-saving and can also prevent complications during other procedures.
Fluid or congestion in the lungs will need continued oxygen treatment while being given medication to address this.
When fluid is detected around the lungs, this will need to be drained and a chest drain may need to be placed.
If a foreign body is suspected, a bronchoscopy or rhinoscopy may be recommended. This is when a small tube with a camera is passed down the throat or up the back of the mouth. This allows the inside of the airways to be examined.
With certain types of infections, or if cancer is suspected but not seen on x-rays, a broncho-alveolar lavage may be recommended. This is similar to a bronchoscopy, but after visual examination, a small amount of fluid is introduced into the airway and then collected. This allows loose cells in the airway to be collected for analysis.
Are some dogs more at risk?
Terriers and other small-breed dogs are more likely to have tracheal collapse or chronic bronchitis, especially West Highland White terriers.
Large-breed dogs are more likely to have laryngeal paralysis, especially Labradors.
Older dogs are more likely to have heart disease.
Overweight or obese dogs tend to have more severe disease.