Sarah Lim, DVM
Angell General Medicine Service
Coughing is a protective mechanism to keep the airways and respiratory tract clear of secretions and foreign material. An occasional cough can be a normal response, while a cough that persists may be a symptom of an underlying problem and be caused by a number of different conditions.
Kennel cough is an upper respiratory infection caused by a combination of viruses and bacteria. Dogs with kennel cough tend to have a deep, dry, hacking cough that may get worse with exertion or activity. Kennel cough is highly contagious and may have been contracted if your dog has been recently boarded or come in to contact with other dogs at parks or play groups. Dogs can recover in 1-2 weeks with rest, but antibiotics or other medications may be required. To avoid infecting other dogs, keep your dog away from them until he/she is recovered.
Many small toy breed dogs can make a coughing sound that is reminiscent of a goose honking when afflicted with kennel cough.
Many small toy breed dogs can make a coughing sound that is reminiscent of a goose honking. Older miniature or toy breed dogs are prone to a chronic condition called tracheal collapse. The cough may be brought on by activity and excitement or straining against their collar and is exacerbated by being overweight. Weight loss (or prevention of weight gain) and use of a harness instead of a collar can help, though veterinary treatment may be needed depending on the severity of the cough. Treatment options can include medical management for mild cases or even surgery in more severe cases.
A cough that sounds wet or is productive (where secretions are expelled from the airway) could be a symptom of pneumonia, which is an infection that can cause fluid or pus to build up in the lungs. Organisms such as bacteria, viruses including influenza, and fungi can cause pneumonia. Another type of pneumonia is aspiration or inhalation pneumonia, which can be a result of breathing in vomit, food particles, or other stomach contents. Symptoms of pneumonia can include fever, lack of appetite, lethargy, and heavy breathing. This is a serious illness that requires immediate attention for diagnostics and treatment. Hospitalization and supportive therapies in addition to antibiotics may even be required, especially if your dog is having heavy or labored breathing.
Coughing can also be a sign of heart disease. Certain breeds such as Dobermans, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Boxers and smaller breed dogs are more predisposed to heart disease. An enlarged heart from heart disease may cause coughing. Heart disease can also progress to congestive heart failure and fluid buildup in the lungs, causing your dog to cough, especially at night or when lying down. Other signs of a heart condition could include fatigue, weakness, exercise intolerance, increased effort in breathing, and loss of appetite.
Sometimes a cough can be triggered by a small foreign object that was inhaled, especially if your dog is outside when the coughing episode starts. The cough may be accompanied by a swallowing or gagging sound. Your dog may be able to cough up and clear the object; however, the object could be lodged so you should have your dog seen by a veterinarian if he/she can’t seem to clear it and the cough persists.
Other causes of cough can include parasites such as roundworms and heartworms, chronic bronchitis, some types of cancer, fungal or other viral infections such as distemper.
As you can see, there can be a number of causes of a cough. Information on the sound of the cough, the pattern and frequency of the cough, recent travel history, and even your pet’s age and breed can provide clues but are often not enough to make a diagnosis. This is often done by using a combination of physical examination findings and often diagnostic tests including chest x-rays, bloodwork, or echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) if heart disease is suspected. Sometimes, fluid samples from the respiratory tract or even fecal testing to look for the presence of parasites that can affect the respiratory tract may be recommended. Treatment or management of these conditions will depend on determining the underlying cause of the cough.
Dogs with a new cough should be evaluated by a veterinarian. The occasional cough may not be worrisome but if your dog’s cough is persistent and lasting for more than a few days, is becoming more frequent, or is accompanied by lethargy or lack of appetite, please bring him/her to a veterinarian sooner rather than later as this could be a warning sign of a more serious condition. Any pet that is having labored breathing needs to be evaluated more immediately. Most conditions causing cough are treatable or manageable if diagnosed early and will help your dog feel better sooner.
For information about Angell’s General Medicine service, please visit www.angell.org/generalmedicine or call 617-522-7282.