Dr. Franck, my dog has a cough, what should I do?
Don’t worry my friend, I know you are worried and I will show you everything you need to know.
To begin with, let’s get down to the basics: there are many reasons for a dog to cough, and we’ll come back to them a little later.
Fortunately, most of these causes are not dangerous, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about them either. Because a cough that lasts or gets worse can be more annoying to treat too.
So let’s be logical in our approach and see all this together.
Dog’s coughing: possible symptoms
So what are the main signs to follow when you have a cough?
This may sound very simple, but it’s not! Yes, I know, there is a cough, but here are a few things to look out for:
- What does the cough sound like?
- Is it more frequent during the day or at night?
- Is it worse after exercise?
- Is it dry or with secretions?
- If there are secretions, what do they look like?
- When exactly did it start?
- Has there been any event that might be in relation to it?
- Recent contact with other dogs?
- Are there any other abnormal signs besides the cough? etc…
As you can see, you have to pay attention to all these details and their evolution over time. For example, if your dog starts with a slight dry cough twice a day, and then starts to cough repeatedly (while being lethargic), it is not the same story.
Okay, Dr. Franck, I get it, you have to be vigilant. So now we can talk about the possible causes of coughing? Of course!
So if we want to name all the reasons for coughing, I would say that the list is quite long!
That’s why we’ll stick to the most common causes, because those are the most likely to happen to you anyway.
The 5 Common causes of dog coughing
#1: infectious cause. What’s infectious? It refers to all the pathogenic/bad evil viruses and bacteria that are in the respiratory system (nose, throat, trachea, lungs) of dogs. Normally, there are many microorganisms in the body and these have a beneficial role in its proper functioning. However, there are some that are more dangerous/abnormal and these are the ones that will cause certain symptoms, including coughing.
#2: cardiac cause. When the heart is not doing well, one of the first organs to suffer the consequences will often be the lungs. For example, there can be an accumulation of water (called edema) in the lungs and this will cause your dog to cough afterwards. Heart problems are seen primarily in middle to older dogs, although it is also possible at younger ages.
#3: tumor/cancerous cause. Generally speaking, dogs are living longer now than they did in the past and this is causing them to have more frequent old dog problems. One of these problems is lung cancer, and although this is not as common as the other reasons listed here, there are primary cancers (i.e., those that start in the lungs) and also those that are secondary. These start elsewhere and then spread to the lungs later. They are also called metastases.
#4: structural cause. This refers to an abnormality in the structure/anatomy of the respiratory system. Tracheal collapse is the one most often seen in the clinic. The typical case is the small breed dog that coughs ‘like a duck’. Go see a video on the internet if you don’t know what I am talking about. That way you will know how to recognize it if you hear it later.
Cause related to a respiratory irritant
#5: cause related to a respiratory irritant. The most irritating will be smoke (candles, cigarettes, etc), certain perfumes, and other aerosols that are used in the home. As soon as the cause is stopped, the cough should go away quite quickly.
While we’re at it, let’s also name less frequent reasons for coughing in dogs that deserve our attention: parasites (heartworm or lungworm), pulmonary embolism (clot in the lungs), immune (asthma, not very frequent in dogs; more frequent in cats).
When to see a vet
Okay, thank you Dr. Franck. So now that I know all this, when is the right time to see a vet?
As is often the case with animals, you have to use common sense. A dog that has a good appetite, is stable in weight, is doing his normal activities and only coughs from time to time is not that worrisome. You can expect everything to be over within 7-10 days.
I often advise keeping a journal in these situations. No need to write a novel! Just write down the date and the signs observed. This way, we have clear data to decide what to do.
Let’s say the situation progresses and now your dog is breathing with his mouth open for periods of several minutes (this is called dyspnea), then it is high time to act and consult.
The reality is that even if you want an urgent appointment, there are many clinics that are already quite busy and will not be able to see you immediately. Then there are always the emergency centers, although these may not be close to your home and it is not always ideal to move (and stress) an animal that is already breathing badly.
So with all of this, you might want to know if there is a home treatment for coughing. Actually, the best thing to do is to make sure your dog is eating and drinking well, as it is his immune system that will often be able to do the job it needs to do. As for all the grandmother remedies for coughing, none of them are specifically recommended. In these situations, it is better to avoid them than to make the condition worse.
Preventing dog’s coughing
So one last question Dr. Franck and then that’s it: what can I do to prevent this kind of problem?
Obviously, some problems are inevitable, including cancers among others. So for those, there’s nothing you can do.
For the others, it is recommended to have your dog vaccinated. The vaccines will protect him from the respiratory viruses and bacteria that have been discussed here. Then, even if your dog is vaccinated, it is probably best to avoid close contact with a dog that appears to be sick.
The next tip is to avoid collars that are too tight around the neck. The alternative is a harness (which attaches to the trunk) or solutions such as the Halti because these do not put pressure on the throat. Then as for respiratory irritants, you have to stop smoking 😉 And also anything that can hang in the air and create worries.
To conclude, remember that cough is only a sign, not a disease as such. This is why giving a treatment blindly, without knowing the cause, is rarely a good idea. You may think you’re buying some time, but you’re really just putting off the problem until later. I agree that a mild cough with a healthy animal that has all its vaccines, we can wait a little.
However, in other situations, it is probably better to consult without waiting too long.
I’m curious: has your dog ever had a cough? If so, what happened afterwards?
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Source 1: Cote’s Clinical Veterinary Advisor: Dogs and Cats, 4th edition. 2020. Leah Cohn, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (SAIM) and Etienne Cote, DVM, DACVIM(Cardiology and Small Animal Internal Medicine)
Francis Lagacé has been a member of the Ordre des médecins vétérinaires du Québec since 2004. He practiced for 16 years in several veterinary clinics across Canada. He treated animals of all types, mainly cats, dogs and exotic animals (rabbits, rodents, ferrets, birds, reptiles). Since 2020 he has been working in the field of veterinary pharmacovigilance. You can find him on LinkedIn.