Is your dog coughing? Causes, treatment and prevention

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Kennel cough is a well-known condition among dog owners. But it may come as a surprise to learn that, just like us, dogs can suffer from different types of cough. In some cases a cough may be an indicator of something more serious. Usually the sound of your dog coughing will be the result of a harmless throat tickle but you shouldn’t ignore it if your dog keeps coughing intensely. Here, we explain the eight common causes of coughs in dogs and when it’s time to book a visit to the vet.

8 common causes of coughing in dogs

Some canine coughs are more serious than others. Read on to find out what to listen out for.

1. Kennel cough

Starting with one of the more familiar causes of a cough, kennel cough is a highly contagious cough, which can be caused by bacterial infection in dogs. Distinguished by a hacking cough, kennel cough can lead to a dry and hoarse cough, or what is known as a ‘productive,’ cough, which can result in the dog bringing up mucus. Kennel cough often sounds like the dog has something stuck in their throat, as though they were retching. In some dogs, it can even sound as though they are sneezing or gasping for breath. Aside from the persistent cough, in most cases, dogs will seem healthy and have an appetite. The good thing is, kennel cough is not usually dangerous and will often clear up within a couple of weeks without treatment. However, if concerned, a vet will be able to advise on a best treatment plan.

2. Swallowed or inhaled a something unexpectedly

Many dogs, and especially puppies, enjoy chewing on objects – from their favourite toy, to a stick they’ve found while exploring the great outdoors. A foreign body can become stuck in your pet’s airway and cause them to cough or gag. You should take them to the vet right away to have the foreign object removed. Owners who regularly walk their dogs through fields should also be aware of seed heads, which are around in late spring and autumn. Ingesting these can lead to acute onset coughing.

3. Tracheal collapse

Most commonly seen in small or toy breed dogs, a collapsing trachea is a progressive weakening of the cartilage rings along the trachea, or windpipe. Over time, this weakness can actually cause the trachea to collapse. This condition is characterised by a cough often described as sounding like a goose ‘honk’. A dog with this condition will often require treatment from the vet, depending on its severity. A combination of lifestyle changes – such as using a harness to walk them rather than a neck lead – and medication can help ease the condition.

4. Heart disease

A cough is one of the first signs of heart disease in a dog. This is because some heart conditions lead to an enlarged heart and fluid in the lungs. These factors can put pressure on the airways, causing the dog to cough. Some breeds are particularly prone to certain heart conditions. For example, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is susceptible to mitral valve disease, which is diagnosed by a heart murmur and leads to congestive heart failure (when the heart can’t pump blood around the body as well as it should). Regular check-ups at the vet will help pick up any heart health issues early on.

5. Chronic bronchitis

When airways become inflamed, dogs can develop a dry, hacking cough that worsens with exercise and over time. This is known as chronic bronchitis and the underlying irritation can be hard to diagnose.

6. Lungworm

Lungworm is a parasite carried by infected slugs and snails, which can seriously harm a dog’s health and can even prove fatal. Adult lungworms infect the heart and blood vessels of the lungs, which often results in a cough. The problem is that by the time dogs show signs of a cough, it is indicative that the infection has already taken hold. In the early stages of the condition, they often won’t show any signs. Lungworm may not be a parasite you are familiar with but awareness is growing as the number of cases of dogs infected rise. Once only found in parts of southern England, lungworm is spreading across the UK. Find out if lungworm has been reported in your area by using our lungworm map. Dogs can be treated for lungworm but the best way to avoid infestation is with a regular preventative product. Speak to your vet about the best way to keep your dog free from lungworm.

Find out more about lungworm in dogs.

7. Cancer

A cough can also be a sign that of cancer affecting the lungs but in the majority of cases dogs with cancer will show other signs. If your dog is displaying unusual behaviour alongside a cough, it’s important to book and appointment with your vet.

8. Laryngeal paralysis

Larger dogs, including Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Weimaraners, can sometimes have problems with their voice box (referred to by vets as the larynx), which can cause affected dogs to cough. This is also common in geriatric dogs. The condition is usually caused by a problem with the nerves which are responsible for holding open the vocal cords when the dog breathes in. This results in difficulty breathing normally. Vets can operate on animals to help relieve the obstruction in their airways, making it easier for the dog to breath.

When you need to take your coughing dog to the vet

Coughing is a normal physical reaction to help our bodies expel anything that has inadvertently made its way into our throats or noses. The same goes for dogs. If you hear the odd cough every now and then, there’s nothing to be worried about.

You should visit the vet if your dog has a cough and you recognise any of the following signs:

  • Intense or excessive coughing, retching or your dog is struggling to breathe
  • cough that has lasted longer than a week and has worsened
  • Vomiting or coughing up blood
  • Signs of extreme fatigue or lethargy
  • Lack of appetite or refusal to eat or drink
  • Other health problems
  • Sudden collapse

How your vet will diagnose the cause of the cough

As we’ve seen, coughs in dogs can have a manner of different causes. Your vet will need to investigate thoroughly to help rule them out.

First they will ask you for your observations of the cough and how long your dog has had it. It can help to write down notes about your dog’s cough in preparation, to help give your vet accurate information and detail. They will also look into your dog’s health record, checking which vaccinations they’ve had and any travel they’ve undertaken.   Your vet will then undertake a complete physical examination and often, this will lead to  tests to help make a clear diagnosis. These might include the following:

  • Blood tests
  • X-ray
  • Echocardiography (an ultrasound of the heart)
  • An examination of fluid samples taken from the airways
  • MRI or CT scan

How you can help prevent your dog contracting a cough

Your dog relies on you to keep them healthy. There are some simple things you can do to limit your dog’s risk of getting a cough:

Keep vaccinations up-to-date

Certain conditions that cause coughs, such as canine distemper and kennel cough, can be prevented through a vaccination programme. Canine distemper requires a vaccination and annual boosters throughout a dog’s life, so speak to your vet to ensure your dog has had their jabs.

Good parasite control

Regular parasite preventative treatments are important for overall dog health but ensuring you use a lungworm product will help stop them from contracting this serious disease, which often causes a cough.

Regular visits to the vet

Check-ups at the vet are important appointments to monitor your dog’s health. Here, the vet will ensure vaccinations are up-to-date, pick up on any early signs of illness and they have the opportunity to look for any underlying health conditions, such as heart disease.

Weight management

Keeping your pooch the right side of the scales will help your dog stay at their best and may reduce diseases that could cause your dog to cough.

Provide a safe environment

Remember that some dogs are very curious and love to investigate things lying around the house. Be sure to keep any items that could be easily chewed, or pose a choking hazard, away from your dog.

Looking after a dog with a cough

We can all empathise when someone has a horrible, annoying cough, so you’ll know what your pooch is going through. In the event that your dog contracts a cough, give them a bit of extra loving care and allow them to rest. Make sure you supply them with plenty of water, healthy dog food and keep any energetic children out of the way until your dog is feeling more themselves.

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