If your dog is coughing, it is sometimes not easy to decide if it warrants emergency attention. This page aims to help you decide how urgently you need to seek veterinary attention. It is not a replacement for your vet’s advice.
In many cases your dog just has a ‘cold’ or kennel cough and the cough may improve with fairly minimal treatment. However, coughing can also be a sign of more serious problems that do need early intervention.
Causes of coughing
Coughing can be due to any sort of irritation in the airways, from the upper respiratory tract and trachea, right down to the lungs. Vomiting or dry retching can also sometimes appear like a cough, so if you are in any doubt, get out your phone and record what your pet is doing, so you can show your vet. Vets love a good home movie. They also love you to imitate what your dog sounds like when he coughs. Seriously, we do!
Types of cough
In some cases the sound of the cough can give you an idea as to the cause, another great reason to tape the cough for your vet. A dry, harsh and loud cough that sounds like your dog is trying to cough up a bone, is typical of a tracheitis or Canine Cough. A soft, wheezy cough is usually an indicator of lung or heart disease. A cough that sounds like a ‘honk’ and happens with excitement or pulling on the lead is common in small breed dogs with tracheal collapse.
When to worry
- If your dog has been coughing for more than a 5 days
- Your dog is coughing AND lethargic or reluctant to exercise
- The cough is associated with your dog passing out or collapsing
- If your dog is also off his food or has any other problems like diarrhoea or vomiting
- If your dog has pale gums or has a bluish tint to the gums
When not to worry
- If your dog has a mild cough, is very bright and otherwise his normal self, it may resolve with just rest.
- Many viral causes of a cough are self-limiting in young, otherwise healthy pets.
- The cases where you really don’t want to take the ‘wait and see’ approach are if your dog has a history of a heart murmur or seems a bit quiet and lacking in energy. Untreated heart and lung disease can be very messy and distressing for everyone concerned if not identified early.
Diagnosing the cause
Once you visit the vet, it may be obvious from the physical examination and history what the cause of the cough is. Your vet will listen to your dog’s heart and lungs, check his temperature and lymph nodes and may recommend some further tests based on this information, or perhaps a course of treatment. Further testing could involve blood tests, heartworm testing and x-rays to identify and rule out some common causes of a cough. If the cough is a little more chronic in nature, laryngoscopy or a broncho-alveolar lavage can help to identify a cause for the cough.
In many cases the treatment involves antibiotics, cough suppressants and supportive care. Providing a warm, humidified environment and using coupage can help to moisten the airways and can assist in clearing mucus if that is part of the problem. If your dog has something more serious like heart disease, diuretics and specific heart medications may be needed.
What can I give my dog?
As a general rule, avoid giving any human medications to your dog, unless your vet recommends it. Dogs are very different in the way they metabolise drugs and many human drugs can be toxic or have undesirable side effects. If your dog has a cough, avoid contact with other dogs, walks out in the cold air and keep him rested and quiet until you see your vet.
We hope this summary has helped you determine whether your dog has a serious cough that needs emergency treatment, or a mild upper respiratory infection that may resolve without treatment. Please do, however consult with your vet for specific advice relating to your pet’s individual condition.