If you hear your pet cough, you may wonder if you should be concerned. Do they simply have an irritation in their throat, or is the cough caused by a more serious issue? Our team at Colony Veterinary Hospital wants to help by answering some frequently asked questions about coughing in pets.

Question: Why do pets cough?

Answer: Pets cough when their respiratory tract, which includes their nasal cavity, pharynx, larynx, trachea, and lungs, is irritated. The action is supposed to help clear the problematic irritation. While all pets cough, the causes behind the cough tend to differ.

Q: What conditions cause dogs to cough?

A: Dogs commonly explore their world with their nose and mouth first, and if they inhale a foreign object, such as dust or a piece of grass, they may cough to clear the irritant. These incidents are not concerning, but other issues that cause your dog to cough are more serious. These include:

  • Infectious causes — Viruses, bacteria, and fungi can cause respiratory tract infections that may lead to a cough. Kennel cough, which most commonly affects dogs who frequently contact many other dogs, is a common culprit. This infection is caused by several viruses and bacteria, including adenovirus type 2, parainfluenza virus, canine coronavirus, and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Signs include a loud, hacking cough, lethargy, decreased appetite, swollen tonsils, and nasal and ocular discharge. Lung infections (i.e., pneumonia) can also result in a wet, gargling type of cough. Labored breathing, fever, and lethargy are other signs typically seen in affected pets.
  • Heart conditions — Cardiac conditions, such as degenerative mitral valve disease, dilated cardiomyopathy, and heartworm disease, can lead to coughing. In some cases, the heart’s inability to efficiently pump blood throughout the body causes fluid to back up in the lungs, resulting in a cough. In other cases, the heart enlarges, causing the organ to put pressure on the trachea, resulting in a cough.
  • Tracheal collapse — Tracheal collapse is a degenerative condition that causes weakening of the cartilaginous rings that hold the trachea open. When this occurs, the rings flatten, and obstruct your dog’s airways. Toy-breed dogs and overweight dogs are at increased risk. 

Q: What conditions cause cats to cough?

A: Coughing does not occur as frequently in cats, but conditions that can cause cats to cough include:

  • Asthma — Feline asthma results from an allergic reaction to inhaled allergens, such as dust, pollen, and mold. These substances trigger an immune response, causing irritation, swelling, and airway constriction. Mucous usually accumulates in the airways, and this leads to narrowed airways, and difficulty breathing. Signs include open-mouth breathing, increased respiratory effort, coughing, and vomiting. Many cats will lower their body close to the ground and extend their neck in an effort to ease their breathing. 
  • Infectious causes — Infections, such as feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus, can cause your cat to cough. These viral infections are highly contagious, and are common in cats housed in close contact with many other cats. Other signs include nasal and ocular discharge, sneezing, conjunctivitis, and nose and mouth ulcers.
  • Nasopharyngeal polyps — Benign masses can grow at the back of your cat’s throat. The exact cause of these polyps is unknown, but a reaction to an infectious agent is suspected. Signs include coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, voice change, and difficulty breathing.

Q: When should I be concerned if my pet is coughing?

A: Obviously, not every coughing incident is cause for concern. You should seek veterinary attention in the following circumstances:

  • Difficulty breathing — If your pet is having difficulty breathing, they will need immediate veterinary care. Signs include open-mouth breathing, wheezing, increased respiratory effort, increased respiratory rate, pale or blue-tinged mucous membranes, and neck extension for better airflow. 
  • Other signs — lf your pet is coughing and also exhibiting other signs, such as lethargy, fever, decreased appetite, and nasal or ocular discharge, they should be evaluated by a veterinary professional.
  • Blood — If your pet is coughing up blood, they should be examined by a veterinary professional.
  • Extended period — Your pet whose persistent cough has lasted more than a couple of days needs veterinary care. 

Q: How is coughing diagnosed in pets?

A: Typical tests performed to diagnose the cause of your pet’s cough include blood tests, such as a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and heartworm test, chest X-rays, heart and lung ultrasound, and endoscopy, a procedure that involves inserting a small camera down your pet’s throat to evaluate their respiratory tract. 

Q: How is coughing treated in pets?

A: Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your pet’s cough. Examples include:

  • Infectious causes — Bacterial infections can be treated using antibiotics, but viral infections typically have to run their course. Anti-inflammatories and bronchodilators may be prescribed in severe cases, to decrease inflammation in the respiratory tract.
  • Heart disease — Depending on your pet’s condition, different heart medications are available that may reduce the fluid in their lungs, or decrease the pressure on their trachea.
  • Tracheal collapse — Pets who are overweight will need to lose the excess weight. Anti-inflammatories can be useful in some cases, but as the condition progresses, surgery is typically required to keep the airway open.
  • Asthma — Steroids are typically used to address the lung inflammation, and bronchodilators are administered to help open up the narrowed airways.
  • Nasopharyngeal polyps — Surgery is required to remove the polyps.

A coughing pet can be concerning, but knowing when your pet needs veterinary attention can ease your mind. However, if your pet’s cough is worrying you, contact our team at Colony Veterinary Hospital, so we can determine the cause.