Why Does My Dog Cough?

By: Dr. Carol Jean Tillman

A dog cough is a symptom that usually results from an underlying condition that affects the upper respiratory tract, namely the nose, throat, larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe).

Below we will discuss the respiratory diseases and problems that can cause coughing in dogs.

The potential causes of a coughing dog can be divided into four main categories:

dog cough

If you'd like specific advice about your dog's situation after you review the information below, we’re happy to help.  Send us details about your dog's condition via our My Online Vet Ask-the-Veterinarian service and be sure to include:

  • Your dog’s breed, age and gender
  • The progression of the dog cough (duration, severity, etc.)
  • Advice you have received from others, if any
  • What you have done to try to fix the problem, if anything

You can also review pictures and questions submitted by other visitors in our My Online Vet Ask-A-Vet Library section on Dog Coughs.

  1. Infectious:
    1. Kennel cough in dogs
    2. Distemper in dogs
    3. Heartworm disease in dogs
    4. Dog pneumonia
    5. Valley fever in dogs
  2. Auto-immune:
    1. Dog allergies
    2. Asthma in dogs
  3. Congenital/breed-related
  4. Geriatric conditions (old age):
    1. Congestive heart failure in dogs
    2. Dog lung cancer
    3. Laryngeal paralysis in dogs

Dog Cough - Infectious Causes

Kennel Cough in Dogs

The most common problem that affects the upper respiratory tract is infectious Tracheo Bronchitis, more commonly known as "Kennel Cough".

Symptoms can be described as a dog cough that begins as a dry hacking cough and ends in gagging or wretching by the dog. A clear, watery discharge from the eyes and nose may also be present, and you may notice that your dog has lost his appetite.

Fortunately, it is not a serious condition.

See our Kennel Cough in Dogs page for more information, including causes, symptoms, prevention and natural treatment of this type of dog cough.

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Distemper in Dogs

Distemper is another infectious agent that will cause dog coughing symptoms. It is caused by the Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) and is a highly contagious disease.

Dog distemper symptoms initially include fever, change in mood and possibly dog coughing, followed by apparent return to normalcy and finally progressing into renewed fever along with reduced appetite and energy. Some dogs with later stage distemper also exhibit coughing along with a clear nose discharge.

Since it currently has no cure and can be fatal, vaccinating your dog is a must for conventional and holistic dog owners alike. But how you choose to vaccinate is up for debate.

See the following pages for more information:

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Heartworm Disease in Dogs

Heartworm disease in dogs is caused by an 8 to 10 inch worm that lives its adult stage in the heart of the dog. The female worm produces microscopic larvae that are released into the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body.

Dog heartworm disease is characterized by several symptoms including persistent coughing, difficulty breathing, weakness or fainting and weight loss. If left untreated, it may even cause heart failure.

See the following pages for more information:

Back to top of Section: Infectious Causes of Dog Cough

Dog Pneumonia

Dog pneumonia can sometimes cause a dog cough. It often occurs after a long bout with upper respiratory illness such as canine kennel cough. Fever, sluggishness, reduced appetite, a runny nose and dog coughing are the most common symptoms.

See our Pneumonia in Dogs page for more information, including natural treatment and prevention options.

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Valley Fever in Dogs

Canine valley fever is caused by a fungus and affects the respiratory tract, skin , skeleton, skin and covering of the heart.

Symptoms are numerous and depend on the affected area of the body. If the respiratory tract or heart are affected, a persistent dog cough will be present.

See our Canine Valley Fever page for more information.

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Dog Cough: Autoimmune Causes

Autoimmune causes of dog coughing include dog allergies and dog asthma.

Dog allergies

Allergic reactions to dog vaccines, environmental allergens, dog food, fleas, drugs, and other noxious stimulants can trigger an allergic response and a correlated dog cough in a susceptible patient.

Any age or breed of patient can be susceptible, but it seems to occur more commonly in dogs between 6 months and 2 years. This may be due to the accumulation of all of the puppy vaccinations followed by the stress of surgery for spaying or neutering, which then lowers their resistance.

Symptoms of dog allergies, especially inhaled allergies to pollens, etc. can include runny eyes and scratching the face, muzzle, corner of mouth, ears, and along the tops of both front legs and feet. Occasionally, dog coughing may be exhibited.

Allergies to second hand smoke will also commonly trigger dog coughing and sometimes dog asthma.

The following pages include more information about dog allergies and how to treat them naturally:

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Asthma in Dogs

Asthma in dogs can start at any age and occur in any breed, but it also is more common in younger patients.

The symptoms are characterized by increased effort to inhale, and the narrowed airway passage causes the characteristic wheezing sound. This can be followed by coughing as the dog attempts to open the airway and catch a breath. It is usually worse during exercise, and it can be worse in cold or hot weather… it depends on the patient.

Conventional treatment for dog asthma and allergies usually consists of drugs such as cortisone, anti-histamines, and/or bronchodilators to suppress the symptoms.

Holistic treatment starts with improving the dog’s diet, improving the living conditions (avoiding second hand smoke if possible), decreasing stress and avoiding dog vaccines. Also, using homeopathic dog remedies to treat the constitution of the patient depending on the individual symptoms will help to reduce symptoms and in some cases bring about a cure.

Bach Flower Essences Rescue Remedy Spray 20ml

I recently treated a 5 year old Llasa apso named Jingles for asthma. Rescue Remedy was used in combination with the homeopathic remedy Phosphorus. Rescue Remedy was useful to decrease anxiety when the owner’s younger 2 year old Golden Retriever wanted to play.

It was noted that increased exercise really exacerbated Jingles, causing more wheezing and asthma as he tried to keep up with the larger, younger dog.

dog cough

Other changes included improvement in diet to eliminate dry food, offering tartar control chew treats such as Greenies Smart Treats, and giving toys with food inside (like the Kong Chew Toy) to keep him busy… this combination approach has really helped.

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Congenital or Breed Related Dog Cough

Congenital causes of dog coughing result from tracheal collapse. Affected breeds include the dogs that have a very short nose and a pushed in face, technically referred to as brachycephalic breeds.

Common breeds fitting this description include…

  • American Bull dogs
  • Boston Terriers
  • Boxers
  • Brussels Griffith
  • French Bull dogs
  • Pekingnese
  • Pugs
  • Puggles (Pug and Poodle Mix)

Due to the features of these breeds, their entire respiratory tract is compromised, from the nostrils that are too small, to the elongated soft palate that can hang down in the back of the throat and restrict air flow, to the narrowed and/or collapsing trachea.

Congenitally caused dog coughing can start as young as 3 to 4 months of age. But it can also be late onset, especially if the dog is overweight.

Symptoms of an obstructed upper airway may include snoring, rapid breathing (or tachypnea), noisy breathing when inhaling, frequent panting, difficulty eating or swallowing, coughing and gagging, inability to perform physical activity, especially in warm, humid weather and occasionally physical collapse.

A physical examination may reveal further indications, such as constricted nasal passages, a higher body temperature (or hypothermia) and increased respiratory effort evident by open-mouth breathing and constant panting. A honking, coughing sound, much worse on exertion or exercise or when excited, is another indication.

Treatment of susceptible breeds is not necessary unless symptoms are present and can often be avoided altogether for dogs who dog not live in warm humid weather or near allergens.

Exact treatment is dependent upon what sort of symptoms are present and how severe they are. Breathing assistance and oxygen supplementation may be necessary, and if the airway is obstructed it must be opened. This can be done by passing a tube through the mouth and windpipe (known as an endotracheal tube) or via a surgical cut in the windpipe (known as a tracheostomy).

There are also surgical procedures that can be done to prevent airway problems in brachycephalic breeds, such as widening narrowed nostrils or shortening an elongated palate.

If the dog undergoes any surgical procedures, she needs to be strictly monitored and continuously checked for breathing rate and effort, heart rate, pulse, and temperature, among other characteristics.

There is no specific holistic treatment that can be done to alter the physical conformation of a breed. Only responsible breeding to increase size of nostrils, shorten soft palates, and strengthen tracheal rings will benefit future generations of brachycephalic breeds.

Prevention comes in the form of corrective surgical procedures, such as the shortening of an overlong palate or correction of narrowed nostrils. These procedures can help prevent respiratory problems in brachycephalic breeds.

Owners of these breeds should also avoid risk factors such as warm humid weather and canine obesity, which can worsen inherent respiratory problems.

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Dog Cough: Geriatric (old age) Causes

Old age in dogs can bring about congestive heart failure, cancer and laryngeal paralysis, each of which may include a dog cough as a symptom.

Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs

For smaller breeds, congestive heart failure usually affects dogs over the age of 10, while larger breeds can be affected as young as 7 or 8. Dog coughing is relatively common with this condition, although it is typically not exhibited in other heart-related issues such as cardiomyopathy.

Congestive heart failure in dogs is caused by a leak in one of the valves of the heart. If a puppy is born with a defective heart valve, the signs of congestive heart disease can start much earlier.

Some veterinarians also feel that dental disease can contribute to congestive heart disease, as the bacteria in the mouth and gums can go into the circulation and lodge onto the edge of the heart valve, causing it to deform and create the leak.

Symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs include coughing and difficulty breathing. A dog’s tongue or gums may also have a blue-tinge instead of their normal healthy pink color. This can be worse at night when the dog is trying to go to sleep.

Conventional veterinarians will treat congestive heart failure with bronchodilators, diuretics, and cardiac drugs for the heart. Holistic veterinarians treat the whole patient, using a low sodium dog food diet, low calories if dog weight loss is needed and better quality protein, such as a raw natural dog food diet.

Herbal treatment with herbal cough syrups that contain wild cherry bark, licorice, comfrey root, coltsfoot, mullein, slippery elm and horehound is also used. In addition, Co-Enzyme Q-10 can be prescribed to strengthen the heart muscle.

The likelihood or timing of congestive heart failure can be greatly improved by following a holistic approach to dog care. Following the recommendations on this site is your best bet, including the feeding of a healthy dog food diet, a reasonable dog vaccination schedule, minimal exposure to toxic flea products, exercise, and effective dog dental hygiene.

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Dog Lung Cancer

Lung cancer usually occurs in older patients, is not breed specific and can be due to environmental factors. As with humans, second hand smoke from the owner can be a cause. It can also occur as a metastasis from a cancer located somewhere else in the body which then spreads to the lungs.

See our Canine Tumors (Dog Cancer) page for more information.

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Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs

Laryngeal paralysis in dogs occurs when the folds on the inside of the larynx (voice box) on the left and right are not pulled up out of the way with each inhalation of breath. The folds remain hanging straight, creating an obstruction to the flow of air. It can occur on only one side or it can be on both sides.

It can occur slowly over time or can come on suddenly when a dog is stressed with exercise or excitement. It usually older dogs between 8 and 10 years old and in larger breeds such as Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers and giant breeds such as St. Bernards and Great Danes.

The cause laryngeal paralysis is a defect in the laryngeal nerve which can become paralyzed or partially paralyzed. When this occurs the patient is able to inhale, and the opening to the trachea widens, but the laryngeal folds do not pull back out of the way.

When there is a restriction of air, the patient tries to breathe in harder, and also cough, in an attempt to clear the obstruction. This makes the problem worse, as the more effort put into breathing, the more inflamed the mucous membranes become. This results in further dog anxiety and worsens the condition.

Conventional treatment consists of surgery to 'tie' back the laryngeal folds, preceded by a tranquilizer or sedation to calm the patient.

As a holistic alternative, consider dog acupuncture, especially electro-acupuncture. It has been found to help stimulate the laryngeal nerve and create movement in the folds in 60 to 70% of patients treated.

Since it is not really know why the laryngeal nerve becomes paralyzed in the first place, it is difficult to say how to prevent it. Some veterinarians have linked it to a low thyroid hormone. However, supplementing with thyroid hormone has not been shown to reverse the problem.

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