Eirevet is a veterinarian specialized in canine and feline internal medicine
who owns a small animal veterinary hospital in Ireland.
Learn about the causes of coughing in dogs and how your vet might diagnose and
Image by Josch13 from Pixabay
Why Do Dogs Cough?
In all species, coughing is a reflex activity, the purpose of which is to
clear irritant or foreign materials or infectious agents from the respiratory
tract. Receptors present in the walls of the airways detect the presence of
such material and initiate forceful, reflex contractions of the diaphragm and
abdominal muscles while increasing outflow pressure through the larynx. This
results in the forced expulsion of mucus and debris from the lungs and
Coughing is a normal protective bodily function. However, when it is
persistent or severe, or when it is accompanied by signs of systemic illness
such as fever, inappetence, or loss of exercise tolerance, it may be an
indicator of a serious problem.
Seek Veterinary Assistance
In most cases, a dog that has a persistent cough needs to be examined by a
What Are the Causes of Coughing In Dogs?
The causes of a persistent cough can most simply be divided into two types:
- Primary respiratory coughs
- Cardiac (heart-related) coughs
In some scenarios, the two types may coexist, which can obviously make them
more difficult to manage.
Certain dog breeds, such as the Cavalier King Charles, are more prone to heart
Infectious Respiratory Disease in Dogs
Below are a few examples of respiratory diseases that may cause coughing in
The most common type of respiratory disease seen in veterinary clinics is
infectious tracheobronchitis, commonly known as ‘kennel cough’. Affected dogs
have a persistent or paroxysmal loud, harsh cough, which may or may not be
followed by the production of frothy mucus.
Owners often mistakenly think that the poor dog has something stuck in his/her
throat, or that the dog is choking. In fact, the harsh nature of the cough is
due to inflammation of the walls of the trachea and bronchial tree, usually
without any significant impairment to breathing. Kennel cough in dogs does not
usually cause any generalized signs of illness except in very young, very old,
or otherwise debilitated animals.
Prevention of Kennel Cough
There are several infectious organisms associated with infectious
tracheobronchitis, with one called Bordetella bronchiseptica responsible for
the majority of cases. Vaccines are available against this disease, and you
should certainly consider including this in your dog’s vaccination regime if
he/she is regularly in contact with other dogs, regardless whether he is
kenneled or not.
How Your Vet Will Treat Kennel Cough
Your veterinarian may elect to use a course of antibiotics depending on the
severity your dog’s cough, and cough suppressants such as codeine are
sometimes also used, as the cough can be so severe as to prevent your pet (and
yourself!) from sleeping. However, a cough suppressant should never be used
without your vet’s advice, as they can sometimes exacerbate the underlying
infection by preventing clearance of bacteria from the airway.
Encouraging your dog to inhale steam vapor by bringing him to the bathroom and
running the shower, or giving a spoon of honey are two natural and safe
remedies you can attempt at home.
Bronchitis and Pneumonia
Infection of the lower airways (bronchitis) or substance of the lungs
(pneumonia) tends to produce more severe signs of illness, and most dogs will
be depressed due to septicemia or fever. Coughing in these cases is usually
softer than that heard with kennel cough, and you may notice a foul smell from
your dog’s breath. Bacterial and fungal infections are commonly associated
with infections at these lower levels of the respiratory tree, and they will
generally require more aggressive treatment by your veterinarian.
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Parasites such as Oslerus osleri , lungworm, and heartworm can cause
coughing through different mechanisms. Parasitic infestation is worth bearing
in mind as a possible cause if your dog has not recently received a deworming
Chronic bronichitis is seen most often in older terriers.
Non-Infectious Respiratory Problems
The following are other possible causes for a cough in dogs.
Allergens and Irritants
As we all know, dust, smoke and other irritants can cause coughing. Again,
this is a normal phenomenon, but chronic exposure can cause secondary changes
in your dog’s airways, leading to excessive mucus production, thickening of
airway walls, loss of normal elasticity, and hypersensitivity.
Allergic pneumonitis is a condition which can cause severe respiratory
compromise in dogs, and needs to be managed by allergen identification and
removal if possible, as well as with prednisolone (a steroid) or other
medications to suppress the immune response.
Chronic bronchitis is a common condition of older dogs (most commonly small
breeds such as Terriers), which causes a productive cough with wheezing. It is
seen much more often in homes in which the pet is exposed to cigarette smoke.
Again, treatment usually requires the use of steroid medication, and
bronchodilators can also be useful in some cases.
Tracheal collapse is an upper airway condition which can sound much like
kennel cough in that the coughing dog will likely be very well, with a harsh
loud cough. It is caused by a weakness in the wall of the main airway (the
trachea), and is often made worse by excitement, environmental irritants, or
pulling on a lead.
This is an anatomical abnormality see in small and toy breeds such as the
Yorkshire terrier, and treatment in some cases requires the implantation of a
stent within your dog’s airway. Weight loss can be very beneficial in mild
cases in obese patients.
Tumors within the chest can cause coughing if they impinge on the airways or
cause fluid accumulation. The lungs are a common place for secondary tumors to
arise from primary masses at other sites in the body.
Dilated cardiomyopathy is more common in the Doberman Pinscher
Coughing as a Result of Heart Disease in Dogs
Cardiac coughing in dogs is usually caused by disease of either the heart
muscle (cardiomyopathy) or the valves of the heart, which promote the normal
flow of blood through the heart, preventing backflow and congestion. Dogs with
a cardiac cough will often show other signs of poor circulation, such as
exercise intolerance, fainting, or lethargy.
Congestive heart failure is the result of blood pooling in the venous system
and leakage of fluid into the lungs and body cavities, and as well as
coughing, some dogs in congestive heart failure will have a swollen fluid-
Breeds That Are Prone to Heart Diseases
There are well known breed predispositions to these heart diseases; for
example, Doberman Pinschers and Cocker Spaniels are prone to developing
Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), while smaller breeds, particularly Cavalier King
Charles Spaniels are much more at risk of developing valvular disease.
What a Cardiac Cough Sounds Like
Both classes of heart disease cause secondary changes in the chambers of the
heart leading to heart enlargement. As well as the soft cough caused by fluid
congestion in the lungs, this heart enlargement also causes a concurrent harsh
cough as the larger chambers, especially the left atrium, compress and
irritate the large airways, meaning the type of cough can vary in dogs with
Seek Treatment From Your Vet
With advances in medical and surgical treatments heart disease in dogs has
become a very treatable condition in many cases, and your veterinarian will
discuss the most appropriate treatments for your pet.
Investigating heart disease with ultrasound.
Diagnosing the Cause of Your Dog’s Cough
As I’ve already stated above, unless your dog is very well in spite of his
cough he should be brought to your veterinarian for examination. In some
cases, your vet may be happy to make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment based
only on his physical examination findings, but in some cases, for example in
an older small breed dog with signs of both heart disease and chronic
bronchitis, further testing is probably sensible to determine the best course
Diagnostic Tools Your Vet May Use
- Blood work: Complete blood work does not usually provide a diagnosis, but can be important in ensuring any medications prescribed are not going to be harmful to your dog. For example, many older dogs with cardiac disease will also have some degree of kidney insufficiency, which requires great care in choosing the type and dose of medication used.
- X-Rays of your dog’s chest provide a great deal of useful information on the condition of the lungs and airways, as well as assessing the size, shape and position of the heart.
- Ultrasonography is a great non-invasive technique for examining soft tissue structures in the chest, but especially the heart, and allows a real time view of the movement and contractility of the cardiac chambers.
- Bronchoscopy is the insertion of a fibre optic cable down the airways. It needs to be performed under general anesthesia, which can obviously carry some risk, but it is the most useful way to examine the inside of the airways, and allows samples to be collected for bacterial and parasitic examinations, and can also help identify tumors within the lungs and bronchi.
What to Do If Your Dog Is Coughing
In most cases, a dog that has a persistent cough needs to be examined by a
veterinarian. If you have a healthy young adult dog that has just recently
started coughing, and is not showing other signs of illness, then you may be
able to nurse him through it using steam vapor and home remedies as shown
above. If you are in any way unsure about what to do, please ring your local
surgery for advice.
Let me know in the comments below if there is any further advice you would
like to see (non-urgent questions only).
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It
is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription,
or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional.
Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a
Any Comments or Questions About Coughing Dogs?
Shiralee Little on April 21, 2020:
My miniature chihuahua suddenly started coughing yesterday and sounds like
your description of kennel cough. She’s eating and drinking and no fever.
Should I be getting her to vet or give it more time?
Audrey on September 18, 2019:
At night I give my dog Benadryl and he does not cough at night. Thank God we
both then can sleep
mary on May 05, 2019:
my German shepherd has a cough like he has something stuck in his throat this
just started last night should i be worried?
Ed Duke on January 06, 2019:
Our large (15-17 lb) Shitzu has been diagnosed with a tumor. He is on a small
dosage of steroids. His worst coughing is in the mornings when he gets up.
Except for the coughs he seems to be fine for his age of over 10 years. My
concern is that he may be in pain whenever he is coughing. Can’t you explain
what he is physically going through? I do not want him in any pain.
Patricia Gresham on August 21, 2018:
My Jack Russell, is coughing more at night
Alisa on July 02, 2018:
My medium golden doodle has had a cough since 5/15 and is on his third round
of antibiotics. They tried an antihistamine with steroid at first and then
gave him a cough suppressant for night time today which hasn’t stopped the
They x rayed his lungs (weren’t concerned), tested for heart worm (negative)
and today swabbed his throat to send off to lab. They also said his lungs
didn’t sound as wheezy as two weeks ago.
When presssing on his tracheas he doesn’t cough. The cough usually occurs at
night, when he gets up from sleeping or is excited and when pulling on his
lead. It comes and goes worse some days than others. Any idea of what else to
Bruce King on March 03, 2018:
My Retriever-Labrador 35kg and in her 12th year had a very harsh dry cough
about 5-6 times a day. She was put on anti-biotics for 2 weeks which helped,
yet she still has the same type cough but only once or twice a day. Through
this she remains in good shape loves to walk, is happy and shows no signs of
slowing down her normal active ways. I’m prepared to have her x-rayed if
necessary but it seems a bit premature to do considering cost. Would
appreciate your advise. Thanks
Chris Barrett on August 06, 2017:
Hello and thank you for the above information. My 14 year old Maltese/Shihitsu
has been on steroids and another tablet for two weeks, and, at the beginning
of the treatment he seemed to respond positively to them, however with just a
few days of medication left he hasn’t improved and this cough and a sort of
choking at the end of the process still persists. I have been quoted$500 for
an X-ray which is out of the question on my disability pension (please note
that I am NOT asking for money)
I AM asking if there is anywhere I can take him or if there is anything else
you can suggest to help my little boy out.
Many thanks. Chris.
Lori on June 23, 2017:
I have a 10 week old Chihuahua puppy that seems absolutely fine, playful ,
nipping, and silly all day except when she goes to sleep she wakes up many
times coughing and sounds like something is gg to come up but never does .
What do u think I should do?
Miriam Baker on May 22, 2017:
My two year old Bichion is up to date on all his shots and then some..Even for
At times of stress… after a nice walk … or for no reason he has a croupy
cough …. It lasts a minute then it’s gone until next time
Tracy on February 02, 2017:
Three years ago my Minx started coughing so I took her to the vet. After an
exam and X-rays it was determined that she had Lymphoma. She lived 2 weeks
after her diagnoses she passed away in my arms. The cough was her only sign at
first then her lymph nodes started swelling and her health went downhill fast.
Laura on October 08, 2015:
My dog is 8 and has been coughing for two days when he gets excited, he is
well, eats and drinks well and still wants to play. What could I give him to
help this go away? Also we have had colds in the house but he only has a
eirevet (author) from Ireland on April 07, 2015:
Thanks for your comment Diana. It’s true that sometimes the old traditional
remedies are every bit as effective as prescription meds, and the side effects
can make the last few weeks or months of a pet’s life less enjoyable. She was
obviously well cared for to make it to fifteen years with ongoing breathing
Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on April 06, 2015:
I had a fifteen year old Jack Russell terrier with a collapsed trachea a few
years back. The best relief we had to offer her was honey. It worked better
than the cough depressants the vet gave us. Sadly the illness took her life,
but the honey helped make her last days more comfortable. This is a very
informative hub. Voted up.