Understanding Your Pet’s Physical Distress
As anyone who’s owned a dog can probably attest, humans and their four-legged friends share many similar physical behaviors – for example, just as people cough to clear their throat when they’re sick, dogs will do the same if they’re congested or something is obstructing their airway. And just as a persistent human cough may be an indicator of a more grave health condition (such as lung cancer or pneumonia), the same logic applies to canines.
While it may be an obvious statement, people have a distinct advantage over their dogs – they can communicate when they’re not feeling well and see a doctor, whereas pets depend upon their owners to pay attention to their symptoms, including different types of coughs, choking, gagging, or other physical ailments that indicate distress. This article will address the many possible causes for dog gagging and coughing, including what to pay attention to, the different types of coughs (and what each might mean), how to treat the animal in question, and other relevant information for pet parents.
Types Of Canine Coughs: Identifying The Sounds & Symptoms
In order to better provide your vet with as much information as possible, it’s important as a pet owner to pay attention to the sounds of a sick dog’s cough – by doing so, it can assist the vet’s office with a proper diagnosis and a subsequent course of treatment, if needed. Various types of canine coughing may include:
- A high-pitched cough that may sound as though the dog is gagging
- A deep, hacking, dry cough
- A deep honking cough that may resemble the sound of a goose
- A wet-sounding, moist/phlegmy type of cough
- The dog is coughing in his sleep
Each of these distinctive types of coughs indicates a specific type of health issue, which should be mentioned during the initial call to the vet’s office to determine whether it is an emergency or not, as well as if it’s indicative of a contagious disease (such as canine influenza or kennel cough) or something more benign.
What’s The Cause For My Dog’s Coughing?
There are quite a few causes for coughing in dogs, ranging from fairly common culprits to serious illnesses. Here are some of the most common causes for canine gagging and coughing as well as the signs to look (and listen) for:
- Foreign Object Lodged In Throat: Whether he’s a puppy or a senior pooch, dogs are natural explorers – but sometimes their curiosity gets the best of them. Inquisitive dogs may accidentally swallow something they shouldn’t have (such as a small toy or coin), causing obstruction of the air passages. Any foreign object lodged in a dog’s throat is hazardous, as it prevents swallowing and proper ventilation – and if it makes its way into his esophagus, could be potentially life-threatening. In any case, if a dog appears to be choking or having difficulty breathing, bring him to the vet immediately.
In other cases, a foreign object lodged in his throat may simply be due to accidental inhalation or ingestion (for example, a grass seed that found its way into his breathing pathway). Regardless of how it got there, a foreign object in a dog’s throat can lead to coughing, irritation, and even possible infection or pneumonia if left untreated.
Signs To Look For: For owners who notice a cough that suddenly grows violent or sounds like gagging (accompanied by lip-licking or visible attempts to swallow), it may be indicative that the dog either has something lodged in his throat or has a sore throat.
- Sore Throat: Just as humans get a sore throat from time to time, dogs can also experience this uncomfortable sensation. Although rarely serious, it can be a nuisance for the affected pet – and in some cases, cause dogs to make some different coughing sounds that may indicate discomfort. While the causes may range from a secondary infection of the mouth or sinus, a foreign object stuck in his throat (as discussed earlier), or in rare cases, tonsillitis, be sure to pay close attention to a dog’s cues – he may be trying to tell you he’s not feeling well or is in pain.
Signs To Look For: Pet parents may observe a gagging cough that sounds high-pitched in their dog, which may suggest he’s suffering from some type of upper airway irritation, a type of canine bacterial infection, or perhaps a partial blockage. Be sure to call the vet immediately to speak about the dog’s symptoms and determine next steps, as the clinician may want to schedule a visit to rule out anything serious. For owners whose gut is telling them it can’t wait for an appointment, go the veterinary office right away, or if it’s after-hours, an emergency pet clinic.
- Reverse Sneezing: Typically associated with smaller-breed dogs and brachyephalic (flat-faced) breeds, such as pugs, reverse canine sneezing is a fairly common condition. Although it’s not a cough, it may be mistaken for choking or coughing by the unsuspecting owner. This strange phenomenon is actually caused by a spasm of the throat & soft palate in the dog, and is triggered by a number of different reasons, ranging from excitement and exercise, an allergic reaction to pollen, a change in temperature, or even a collar that’s simply too tight.
While most instances of reverse sneezing don’t require treatment, it’s smart for owners to keep track of when such episodes take place – this will not only help identify triggers, but allow pet parents and their fur babies to avoid them as much as possible. In the event that the reverse sneezing episodes becomes longer in duration than usual or appear chronic, it may be wise to reach out to a trusted vet right away to ensure something more serious isn’t brewing.
Signs To Look For: For folks unfamiliar to the sounds of a reverse sneeze, it may be disconcerting or worrisome – some folks worry that their dog is having an asthma attack or choking. However, the majority of the time, a reverse sneeze is simply that – air is being pulled quickly (and nosily) through a dog’s nose, whereas it is pushed out in a regular sneeze. Other signs to look for: a dog’s stance may show his elbows spread way apart, his head extended, and his eyes appear to be bulging.
- Kennel Cough: If an owner notices a dog with a sudden persistent or nagging cough in their otherwise healthy pooch, the culprit may be kennel cough. In some cases, the dog may experience coughing ‘fits’ or spasms, which may grow exacerbated in times of excitement or vigorous activity (such as a brisk walk outside or rough-housing during a game of catch). For dogs who have recently been in contact with other canines, the pup in question may have contracted a kennel cough infection.
With symptoms that typically appear from two to 14 days after initial exposure, this illness can last between 10 – 20 days and may reoccur during times of stress. Although some vets may prescribe antibiotics, many experts believe that healthy dogs can heal naturally in the case of mild infections in about three weeks; however, in the case of older dogs, puppies and canines with compromised immune systems, recovery time may take a bit longer and require age/condition-appropriate therapy. In serious cases, kennel cough may result in canine pneumonia, so be sure to seek professional assistance right away and discuss the best treatment options with the family vet. In any circumstance, most experts recommend quarantining dogs affected with kennel cough, as the illness is highly contagious.
Signs To Look For: Either viral or bacterial in origin, these nasty infections usually elicit deep, hacking, dry-sounding coughs, accompanied by other symptoms such as snorting, gagging, sneezing, and in worst-case scenarios, vomiting.
- Canine Influenza Virus (the flu): Canine influenza virus, also commonly known as dog flu, can affect dogs at any age. Although most cases aren’t fatal, it can cause dogs to feel very sickly, so it’s important for owners to recognize the signs & symptoms in the event of a local outbreak.
An infectious respiratory disease caused by influenza virus (similar to the strains that cause flu in people), the known strains found in the United States are H3N8 and H3N2. Similar to human cases of the flu, dog flu is also airborne – respiratory secretions (such as phlegm and mucous expelled during coughing, sneezing, and barking) are released into the atmosphere, where they are then inhaled by a new canine host. Additionally, canine influenza spreads through shared items, such as water bowls, dog collars, and kennel surfaces, as well as through contact with people who’ve had direct contact with an infected canine. Therefore, quarantining an infected dog is important, especially in households with multiple dogs. Keeping dogs away from kennels or public places that have recently reported cases are some of the best way to protect dogs from this uncomfortable illness. While there is no cure for dog flu, a vet can recommend ways to keep pets comfortable during their bout with this unpleasant virus.
Signs To Look For: In the case of dog influenza, there are certain tell-tale signs that all pet parents should know about. With symptoms that range from mild to severe, dog flu isn’t seasonal, unlike human influenza viruses. Therefore, keep a watchful eye year-round for signs & symptoms which may include:
- Coughing (with sounds ranging from moist to dry)
- Sneezing/nasal discharge
- Runny, watery eyes
- Lethargy/listless behavior
- Labored or difficult breathing
It should also be noted that dog influenza symptoms resemble kennel cough symptoms, so be sure to speak with the vet as soon as signs are observed. It’s also important to have a dialogue with the vet clinic to learn the subtle yet distinct signs between kennel cough and dog flu, as well as how each ailment should be handled.
- Pulmonary Issues: In the event that an owner hears a “moist” cough – one that sounds wet or phlegmy – it may indicate problems in the dog’s lower airway or pulmonary system (lungs), which could mean pneumonia or something equally serious. Such sounds may be a sign of fluid in his lungs, and unlike other types of canine coughs, his breathing will sound labored even when he’s not coughing. These symptoms warrant immediate attention, as pet owners should bring their dog to the vet as soon as possible.
Signs To Look For: Coughing that sounds wet or moist; usually a ‘productive’ cough that produces phlegm or mucous. May also be accompanied by labored breathing, even when the dog isn’t coughing.
Did You Know…
Pneumonia typically afflicts canines with weakened or undeveloped immune systems, such as puppies and geriatric dogs. There are many causes of dog pneumonia, including viruses, bacteria, canine parasites, fungi, or aspiration secondary to inhalation of foreign material after vomiting (or after exposure to toxins, such as petroleum distillates/gasoline, etc.). This is yet another reason why pet owners must be proactive caregivers and advocates when it comes to their dog’s healthcare, especially for pooches with compromised immune systems.
- Tracheal Collapse: In the instance of toy breeds, many are at increased risk of canine tracheal collapse, a chronic and progressive disease that may be either acquired or congenital. Canines who have been diagnosed with this condition usually show signs of respiratory distress, gagging during eating/drinking, and exercise intolerance, since their airway is physically obstructed and it makes breathing difficult. Additionally, obese dogs are at an increased risk of developing a collapsed trachea, so a weight management plan may need to be discussed with a vet if he or she feels it may diminish the problem, as well as ensure his overall health. Depending on the severity of the dog’s condition, tracheal collapse may warrant surgery or some form of medical management.
Signs To Look For: One of the most distinctive characteristics of tracheal collapse is a canine cough that mimics the sound of a goose – it may become more pronounced when the dog is pulling against his collar during walks, and is especially prevalent in hot humid weather when the dog is engaged in physical activity.
- Less Frequent Causes Of Canine Coughing: While any sort of gagging or coughing in dogs is cause for concern, there are a few less-common causes of canine coughing that a vet may want to rule out. These may include conditions such as:
- Congestive Heart Failure/Heart Disease
- Chronic bronchitis
Your Pup’s Coughing: What To Expect At The Vet
Once a pet owner has brought the affected pooch to the clinic, his vet will be able to pinpoint the reason for his cough during the examination. More than likely, if the clinician feels it’s due to a serious condition, he or she may order a blood/urine test for more definitive results, as well as an MRI, X-rays, CT scan, ECG (echocardiogram) or other types of screening methods, depending on the severity and persistence of cough/type of symptoms displayed. Although it’s natural to get worried, speaking with the vet and asking questions may alleviate some fears – after all, there’s no sense in thinking ‘worst-case scenario’ until the test results present themselves. At the end of the day, a cherished furry companion will know that his people are doing everything possible to provide the best care for him, no matter what the outcome is.
Helpful Tip: Log His Health
While it’s ultimately the physician’s job to determine the animal’s condition (and illness, if any), it is very helpful as a pet parent to provide as much info as possible during a trip to the vet. Therefore, experts encourage keeping a journal of a beloved dog or cat’s signs and symptoms – whether in a traditional notebook, on a desktop or tablet, or utilizing a smartphone app, documenting a pet’s health history helps owners remember the details, allowing them to maintain accurate records of their beloved fur baby.
This is useful for many reasons – by keeping track of an animal’s overall condition throughout his lifespan, it not only provides crucial information that can be shared during a trip to the vet, but recording info – such as reactions to treatment, particularly if the pet is prescribed a prescription medication – can be referred to at a later date. Such proactive pet-parenting can help identify treatments or meds that may not have worked in the past, thus helping vets and owners identify the best course of therapy while avoiding potentially dangerous allergic reactions/side-effects. Another bonus: keeping a detailed health log for one’s pet is also valuable for owners who tend to get emotional or anxious (and sometimes forgetful) during trips to the vet.
At the end of the day, the best thing to do if your dog is coughing and gagging is to seek treatment from a professional veterinarian. As always with a four-legged friend, it’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to their overall health.
Becker, Dr. Marty, DVM. “Why Is My Dog Coughing?” Vet Street.com, November 14, 2013, http://www.vetstreet.com/dr-marty-becker/why-is-my-dog-coughing. Accessed June 25, 2019.
Becker, Dr. Marty, DVM. “An Odd Sign of Heart Disease You Won’t Want to Ignore.” HealthyPets.Mercola.com, November 16, 216, https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2016/11/16/common-causes-dog-coughing.aspx. Accessed June 25, 2019.
Burke, Anna. “Dog Coughing: Causes and Treatment Options.” AKC.org, November 22, 2016, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/dog-coughing/. Accessed June 25, 2019.