Written by Dr. Cariann Turbeville

Dogs coughing happens for many reasons, from minor annoyances like allergies to more serious conditions like pneumonia. Knowing the cause of your dog’s cough is essential to providing the best possible treatment. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most common causes of dog coughing and what you can do to help your furry friend feel better.

Dogs are born explorers, and they lead with their muzzles, nosing into everything from roadside trash to the laps of human visitors. There may be minor disturbances along the way – an occasional grass stem, a pinch of dust – that call for a quick throat clearing. The kind of dog coughing that causes a little throat tickle and resolves quickly is not a cause for alarm. However, more prolonged coughing in dogs may signal a more significant concern.

Different dog coughing sounds

While the sounds your dog makes while coughing or gagging may not be music to your ears, the tonal quality can be helpful in trying to determine the cause and severity. So listen carefully to your dog’s coughing and use your mobile phone to record the sounds coming from your dog. Then playback the sound for us at Airvet. Just hearing the sounds may be helpful for an initial discussion. The following are some of the primary sounds associated with coughing in dogs:

  • Hacking cough — This cough sounds like your dog is trying to clear their throat
  • Honking cough — Sounds similar to the honking noise that a goose makes
  • Wet cough — A moist, sticky, phlegmy cough that sometimes sounds like gurgling. Your dog might cough up discharge.
  • Gagging, then coughing — It sounds like your dog is trying to regurgitate, and then coughs afterward.

Dog cough vs. dog gagging – how to tell the difference

Typically, when a dog coughs it is an involuntary reaction that helps expel air from the lungs, along with irritants like dust, pollen, and excess mucus. Ideally, a few powerful coughs eject the irritants to clear the airway for easier breathing.

By contrast, gagging is a reflex reaction that happens when food or drink are swallowed too quickly, if something becomes lodged in the esophagus, or if the dog regurgitates stomach contents. If your dog is gagging, its mouth will be open with the tongue thrust forward, frequently because the larynx (voice box) is inflamed.

Gagging (as opposed to coughing) is more easily observed when the dog is swallowing while eating and drinking. Gagging may be followed by vomiting.

Take note of the order in which your dog is coughing and gagging. Do they cough and then gag? Or do they gag first and then cough? A veterinarian will use this information to explore different causes.

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Common causes of coughing in dogs

Kennel cough

Also called infectious tracheobronchitis, this highly contagious syndrome can be caused by Bordetella bacteria or several viruses, and is commonly picked up in boarding and doggy daycare facilities and by sniffing noses with strange dogs. It is characterized by a dry, honking cough that can last days to weeks. Thankfully, kennel cough is not especially serious when contained in the upper respiratory tract. However, if the infection expands into the lungs in a very old or young dog, pneumonia may result.

Laryngeal paralysis

It’s worth noting that some large breeds – Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Weimaraners, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Great Danes – are particularly prone to a condition known as laryngeal paralysis. This usually happens to dogs over 5 years of age and is a condition which prevents the larynx from closing while your dog eats, drinks and swallows. This allows food debris and water to enter the airway. When this happens, your dog will cough in an attempt to clear it. Management involves raising your dog’s water and food bowls to chin level and avoid using collars and leashes around their neck. Heat worsens the problem, so avoiding exercise during the warmest parts of the day is a good idea to prevent heat stroke.

Tracheal Collapse

Small breed dogs often develop weakened tracheal rings as they age. When the dog gets excited or becomes active, the tracheal rings collapse and cause a honking cough. The cough improves when they calm down. Tracheal collapse is not typically a harmful condition. Sometimes medications can help with this problem, but avoiding stress and over excitement is the best way to reduce its occurrence.

Pulmonary issues

A wet cough in dogs can signal a symptom of lower airway or pulmonary issues. Fluid in the lungs will often cause a slurpy-sounding cough. Of these top four coughs, the “wet” cough is potentially the most dangerous, and could possibly indicate pneumonia.
A wet cough sounds like a phlegmy, gargling cough and is often accompanied by labored breathing.

Other causes of coughs in dogs

Other possible causes for a canine cough include parasites such as heartworm and roundworms. The canine flu (influenza caused by a virus) is a rare problem that has caused some localized outbreaks in the last decade. Chronic bronchitis and heart disease can lead to coughing in dogs, especially when they are exercising.

Is coughing serious in dogs?

The occasional cough

On its own, coughing is not automatically a serious condition requiring immediate care, especially if your dog is bright and bouncy a few minutes after coughing or gagging. As part of the normal course of dogdom, occasionally something inhaled will need to be ejected with a few forcible blasts from the lungs. When this is the case, it’s resolved in a matter of minutes, and soon all’s right with the world once again.

Observing your dog’s cough

Dog parents should carefully observe their dog’s cough and notice other symptoms or factors that are concurrently present. Examine your dog physically as well as their environment to get a full understanding of what is going on.

Is there a particular time of day when your dog coughs more frequently?

As always, be observant. If you notice that your dog is only coughing at night, the existing problem may be made worse when your dog lies down.

Are there any environmental irritants present?

Examine your dog’s environment. If your dog’s bed is close to a highly perfumed air freshener or even an open window, irritating chemical fragrances, pollen or chilly air can lead to a cough response.

Do any other symptoms accompany your dog’s cough?

A cough which indicates something more serious is typically accompanied by other symptoms. If your dog is lethargic, won’t eat, seems short of breath or if you notice sneezing with yellow or green mucus, red eyes, and an elevated body temperature you may be dealing with a respiratory infection or something that requires veterinary intervention.

What (if anything) is your dog coughing up?

Is your dog coughing up blood?

If your dog coughs up blood, seek immediate veterinary help. Coughing up blood may indicate internal injury (perhaps from trauma like being hit by a car), the presence of heartworm disease, or pneumonia. In extreme cases, blood could indicate the possibility of other serious diseases including cancer.

Is your dog’s mucus yellow, green or brown?

If your dog is sneezing or coughing up discharge that is green, yellow, or brown, it is possible that they have a respiratory infection. If you observe these colors of mucus, it is important that you make an appointment with a veterinarian. They might need to perform some testing and prescribe medication.

Is your dog coughing up clear liquid, mucus or white foam?

Coughing up clear liquid, mucus or white foam are generally indicators of a less serious irritation. Irritants are a common trigger, including cigarette smoke, pollen, dust mites and household chemicals. If the mucus is transparent and clear, it’s less likely that an infection is present. Mucus serves an important purpose. This soft, sticky substance is a magnet for irritants. Mucus assists their exit from your dog’s body by moving allergens and pathogens through your dog’s nose and throat and safely out of his body.

If your dog is coughing, it’s important to determine the root cause and take the necessary steps to treat it. The most common causes of coughing in dogs are discussed above. If your dog is coughing and/or gagging, Airvet is here to help with an instant consultation with a veterinarian 24/7/365. And if you haven’t already, be sure to download the top-rated Airvet app today!

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