Coughing in Dogs

Summary

Coughing is a common symptom observed in dogs. It can be caused by a multitude of conditions. Some common causes of coughing include bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, heart disease, and structural problems with the breathing apparatus itself like a collapsing trachea. 

Since coughing is associated with so many different conditions, it ranges widely in severity and may be acute, intermittent, or chronic. Similarly, it may occur as a single symptom or be associated with a multitude of other symptoms. 

A cough that is observed alongside symptoms of distress such as choking or collapse is an emergency and immediate veterinary attention is required.

Due to the various conditions it can be associated with, it is important to consult with a veterinarian to determine the root cause of coughing to determine the best course of action.

Coughing can be confused with other symptoms like regurgitation, gagging, sneezing, or anything that changes the character of a dog’s bark.

Guidelines

An occasional cough is not necessarily something to be alarmed of, but if it is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, seek immediate veterinary attention:

• Fainting (syncopy)

• Exercise intolerance

• Collapse

• Ataxia: difficulty walking, characterized by poor coordination, weakness and loss of balance

• Choking

• Pale and/or blue gums

• Pawing at the mouth

Whether a cough is associated with other symptoms or not, seek non-urgent veterinary attention if it becomes more frequent or persistent. If a cough is the only clinical sign present, seek veterinary care if it lasts for more than two weeks.

Possible Causes

Coughing is generally associated with many different conditions, disorders, and syndromes including:

• Kennel Cough: Also known as infectious tracheobronchitis or Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease; a collection of infectious diseases caused by various types of viruses or bacteria

• Fungal infections such as coccidioidomycosis (Valley fever), histoplasmosis or blastomycosis

• Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome: This refers to the collection of anatomic abnormalities in flat-faced breeds like pugs that prevent normal respiration

• Parasitic infections such as heartworm, roundworm or hookworm

• Heart diseases like congestive heart failure and dilated cardiomyopathy

• Tick borne diseases such as rocky mountain spotted fever or anaplasmosis

• Pneumonia and any other primary disease of the lungs and lower airways 

• Bronchitis: inflammation of the bronchi, which are airways within the lung

• Collapsing and or hypoplastic trachea: structural abnormalities that limit the function of the trachea (windpipe)

• Asthma: an allergic disease rarely seen in dogs

• Laryngeal paralysis: common in older Labrador retrievers, this condition is indicative of a larger neuromuscular disorder known as geriatric onset laryngeal paralysis and polyneuropathy (GOLPP)

• Neoplasia: tumors or cancer in upper or lower airways can cause a dog to cough

• Pneumothorax: the presence of air in the chest cavity

• Diaphragmatic hernia: a defect in the diaphragm that negatively impacts respiratory efforts

• Foreign body: an object such as a stick or a rock in the mouth, esophagus, or trachea can trigger coughing

• Post-surgical: an endotracheal (breathing) tube that is inserted during general surgery can irritate the throat

• Medication: coughing is listed as a potential side effect for many medications

• Exposure to airborne irritants like secondhand smoke

• Obesity: the build-up of fat around the lungs in morbidly obese dogs prevents normal respiration and coughing often results.

Risk Factors

Coughing in dogs may be characterized by:

• Frequency: how often is the dog coughing? Is it regular or occasional?

• Development: did this symptom suddenly arise (acute) or has it been present long-term (chronic)?

• Severity: is the cough mild, moderate or severe?

• Origin: is it coming from the upper airways or lower?   • Moisture: is it moist or dry? Is it producing phlegm or mucus?

Testing and Diagnosis

A dog presenting with a cough usually requires the following diagnostics to determine the best course of action: 

• Physical examination: the veterinarian will focus on the mouth and throat by palpation (feeling) of the throat and visualization of the mouth and airway. They will also listen to the heart and lungs to identify any abnormalities. 

• Blood work: this provides useful information about the pet’s overall health and can provide clues about potential sources for the cough. Heartworm disease is an example of a parasitic disease that is easily diagnosed with a simple blood test

• Diagnostic imaging: may include a combination of X-Rays, CT scan or MRI imaging to reveal the root cause of the cough

• Endoscopy: a procedure in which a small flexible tube is used to visualize the esophagus, trachea or bronchi to determine the cause of a cough

 • Parasitology: fecal testing and heartworm testing to determine if the cough is related to a parasitic infection

 • Fluid analysis: Microscopical analysis of fluid and cells collected from the trachea and bronchi can provide evidence of the underlying cough like infectious agents, inflammatory cells, or cancer cells

Similar symptoms

Other symptoms that might be mistaken for coughing include:  

• Reverse sneezing: sudden rapid inhalation through the nose, often accompanied by gagging

Sneezing: an rapid, forceful exhalation of air through the nose

• Barking: a dog with laryngeal paralysis may have a deep, hoarse bark that may be mistaken for a cough

• Regurgitation: it can be difficult to determine if a dog is coughing up small amounts of fluid/foam from the respiratory tract, or regurgitating fluid from the stomach

Associated Symptoms

A dog that is coughing may show other symptoms like:

• Exercise intolerance • Dyspnea (trouble breathing) • Lethargy • Appetite loss • Weight loss • Vomiting and/or regurgitation

• Runny nose • Nasal congestion

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