Coughing in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Coughing and Should I Worry?

Coughing is a natural response to irritation or abnormality in the airway.

A cough is the body’s way of clearing the airway. When the effort is successful, the coughing stops. If the problem persists, so does the cough. Which also tells you when you should be concerned.

Coughing in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Coughing?

Our dogs often cough a few times when drinking from a bottle and not getting the water down quite right. It seems to me that it happens when they take the water from the top of the tongue, rather than lapping normally. (With a dog drinking normally, the tongue actually folds under to bring the water into the mouth)

Our guys might also cough when they try to eat and bark at the same time—figures. Daughter’s Chi’s cough when they pull on their leashes—you wouldn’t believe how much pull can such a little dog generate.

A few coughs like that don’t concern me much.

Jasmine’s persistent cough

Once Jasmine started coughing after a bark-off session with a new dog next door.

Her rules were simple. Come out and meet up with me when I’m walking outside, or come through the front door like everybody else. Sneaking around the yard is not a proper behavior and you’ll get told. So he got told.

At first, we thought she had irritated her throat with all that barking. But the day went on and the cough wasn’t going away. We ended up at the vet’s that afternoon.

It turned out that her lymph nodes were swollen and she was running a bit of a fever. The vet checked her out and said that it’s either lymphoma or an infection and that we should try antibiotics first to see what happens.

Uh-huh? You don’t just spring words like lymphoma at people at random! And other than the coughing there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with her?!

However, trying the antibiotics first made sense to us and so we did that. Fortunately, the cough cleared right up quickly and that was the end of that.

When to see a vet

Persistent or severe cough is a reason for concern and requires medical attention. Coughing accompanied by labored breathing, lethargy or bloody sputum is a potential emergency and should be treated immediately. It’s all about being able to assess the seriousness of the situation.

Indication your dog’s coughing in an emergency:

  • persistent cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing to the point of vomiting
  • coughing up blood

As well as coughing is an emergency when your dog also has other serious symptoms such as:

  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • depression

In any such scenario, seek a veterinarian immediately.

Potential causes of coughing in dogs

There is actually quite a long list of possible reasons why your dog might be coughing:

  • respiratory infections (bacterial, viral or fungal)
  • inflammatory or immune conditions (e.g., chronic bronchitis or allergies)
  • parasites
  • heart disease
  • tracheal collapse
  • foreign bodies (e.g., inhaled grass seed or chunks of food)
  • cancer
  • fluid accumulation in or around the lungs including blood, pus, or chyle (a fatty fluid)
  • trauma

Respiratory infections

When considering a respiratory infection, keep in mind that the irritating invaders can be:

  • viruses
  • bacteria
  • fungi
  • parasites

They can infect any part of the respiratory tract.

Kennel cough

Kennel cough is the most common infectious cause of coughing.

It is caused by viral and/or bacterial infections (sometimes in combination). This results in a deep, dry, hacking cough that sometimes ends with a gagging sound. Kennel cough often gets worse with exercise or excitement.

If your dog has been recently boarded, groomed, visited a daycare or other places with a lot of other dogs, kennel cough is a most likely suspect.

Further information: Kennel Cough in Dogs

In contrast, a high, weak gagging cough suggests pharyngitis and sore throat. If your dog is coughing from tonsillitis, they may also swallow a lot and lick their lips.

Canine influenza

Yes, dogs can get the flu too. Just like human flu, it is a highly contagious viral infection and outbreaks are not uncommon. Along with coughing, symptoms of dog flu include:

  • runny nose
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • eye discharge
  • loss of appetite

Further information: Canine Influenza (Flu)

Fungal infections

Fungal infections can be the worst of them all. I have seen x-rays of a dog whose lungs looked as if they were ravaged by cancer.

Your dog can pick up fungal spores from the dirt or through the air.

Blastomycosis, for example, is a systemic fungal infection. While it can go after the eyes, skin, and bones, it is usually the lungs that get hit the hardest.

Symptoms of blastomycosis include:

  • fever
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • eye inflammation and discharge
  • skin lesions
  • loss of appetite

Further information: Fungal Infection (Blastomycosis) in Dogs

Heartworm infection

Heartworms are mosquito-borne parasites that can damage both the heart as well as the artery carrying blood from the heart to the lungs for oxygenation.

Symptoms of heartworm disease include:

  • coughing
  • exercise intolerance
  • hemorrhage from the nose
  • pneumonia
  • right-sided heart failure
  • cardiac arrhythmia, which may lead to sudden death in some cases

Heartworm disease is a potentially fatal condition which can result in severe lung disease, heart failure, organ damage and death.

Further information: Canine Heartworm Infection: Don’t Let Heartworm Become A Heartbreak!

Lungworm infection

Lungworm infection is a lesser known parasitic infection in dogs. It is a relatively new problem in the US and Canada. It is what it sounds like⁠—a parasitic worm infection in the lungs.

As you imagine, cough is an obvious symptom. Other symptoms depend on the severity of the infection and include:

  • shortness of breath
  • sneezing
  • wheezing
  • exercise intolerance

Further information: Lungworm Infections in Dogs

Canine distemper

Canine distemper starts with a runny nose and eyes, fever, lack of appetite, and, you guessed it, coughing  But is seen almost exclusively in young dogs that are not up to date on their vaccines.

Further information: Canine Distemper Virus

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs and airways. It leads to difficulty breathing and resulting in oxygen deprivation.

Pneumonia is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. bacterial pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs in response to a bacterial infection.

Aspiration pneumonia results from inhalation of foreign matter, particularly gastric contents. With pneumonia, cough is accompanied by fever, depression and rapid breathing. The cough is often moist and bubbling.

Symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • fever
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • lethargy
  • exercise intolerance

Further information: Pneumonia in Dogs

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is characterized by inflammation of the bronchi or smaller airways. It can be acute or chronic. Underlying causes include bacterial infections, allergies, parasites, or chronic inhalation of airway irritants.

In chronic bronchitis, the cause might be long gone and it is hard to identify.

To be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, a dog has to have been coughing for two months or longer and other possible causes of coughing need to be ruled out. The typical cough is harsh and dry, followed by retching and gagging. If left unchecked, it can lead to irreversible damage to the airways.

Symptoms include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • difficulty breathing

Further information: Chronic Bronchitis: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Heart disease

Coughing is a common symptom of severe heart disease.

When the heart becomes unable to pump blood properly, it leads to a buildup of fluid in the lungs and surrounding tissues. The most common symptom of congestive heart failure is persistent coughing and difficulty breathing.

The coughing is likely to be the worst at night and during rest.

There are other conditions that can cause pleural effusion, such as liver disease, kidney failure, pancreatitis, lung tumors, and it can be a complication of bacterial pneumonia. Coughing is accompanied by rapid, labored breathing and your dog’s mucous membranes may appear blue.

A useful test is to count your dog’s respiratory rate while they are sleeping. As a rule of thumb, If it is greater than 30 breaths/min there is pulmonary edema present.

Further information: Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs

Collapsing trachea

Trachea (windpipe) is the tube that carries air from the nose to the lungs. It consists of cartilage rings covered by muscle. It is meant to be a sturdy structure.

When the cartilage rings weaken, they can no longer hold their shape which results in air obstruction. It is quite obvious why that would make your dog cough.

A dog with a collapsing trachea will have a characteristic goose-honk cough.

Further information: Tracheal Collapse in Dogs

GOLPP (Laryngeal paralysis)

Geriatric onset laryngeal paralysis polyneuropathy (GOLPP), previously known as laryngeal paralysis can also have coughing as one of its symptoms.

One of the first signs of GOLPP is the dysfunction of the voice box (larynx). The primary function of the larynx is to let air but not food down into the lungs. When the muscles that control it lose their ability to function normally, it results in difficulty breathing.

Symptoms of GOLPP include:

  • voice change
  • noisy breathing (particularly when breathing in)
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing

Further information: Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs

Foreign bodies

The symptoms of respiratory foreign bodies depend on what part of the airways is obstructed. Bronchial or tracheal foreign bodies can have the following symptoms:

  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing or respiratory distress
  • wheezing
  • retching

Further information: Respiratory Foreign Body in Dogs

Cancer

As much as we hate to think about it, cancer can also cause coughing, particularly in middle-aged to older dogs. 

Tumors may originate in the lungs (primary lung cancer) or spread (metastasize) from other parts of the body. Lymph nodes in the chest may enlarge with lymphoma and press on a dog’s airways causing coughing. These dogs are lethargic, losing weight, and show other warning signs of a major problem.

Can you see now, why you need to see a vet if your dog has a severe or persistent cough?

Related articles:
Is Coughing an Emergency?

Further reading:
Why is My Dog Coughing? Common Causes and Treatment Options

Categories: CoughingSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

10 Comments
  1. So many reasons a pet could be coughing! It’s not always easy to tell what is not a big deal (like a hairball episode in cats) or something major. One of mine got a cough that I was sure meant he had HCM (his breed is prone to it.) but it turned out he had asthma. I’d never heard of a cat with asthma before but now it seems much more common.

  2. Marjorie Dawson

    You are so right. YOU DO NOT spring words like Lymphoma in an unsuspecting pet parent.Man that is so wrong Grrrrrr. We lost Sooty too it and it someone just said that to me I would pull them up short and sharp for a full explanation.

    There is SO much information here you NEED to do another book!

  3. Lots of great info – and it’s important to keep an eye (and ear) out on our pets! They can’t talk and so every little thing, including coughing, gives us hints about what’s going on with them!

  4. Nelly has a collapsing trachea, but fortunately she doesn’t cough very often. I pay attention to my dogs when they cough and am quick to take them to the vet.

  5. Gosh, having a dog is just like having a kid sometimes, I think … so much to watch for. Thanks for this! It was a great education and reminder on being vigilant with your dog’s heatlh.

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