Sometimes healthy pets cough as a natural response to an irritant inside the respiratory tract, but some causes can be serious for pets. Our team at Walnut Creek Veterinary Hospital wants to provide information about what causes pets to cough, and when you should be concerned.

The coughing dog

If your pet coughs but otherwise seems healthy and happy, you likely have nothing to worry about. Concerning conditions that cause dogs to cough include:

  • Kennel cough — Kennel cough (i.e., infectious tracheobronchitis) is most commonly caused by Bordetella bronchiseptica and canine parainfluenza virus. These pathogens attack the upper respiratory tract, causing severe inflammation. Clinical signs include a strong, honking cough, sneezing, fever, lethargy, and decreased appetite. Dogs who are commonly in contact with many other dogs, such as those who are boarded, frequent dog parks or doggy day care facilities, or go to dog shows, are at higher risk. 
  • Collapsing trachea — The trachea is a flexible tube with cartilaginous rings that keep the airway open. If these rings weaken, they can flatten, and obstruct the airway. This condition, called collapsing trachea, is a chronic, progressive disease. Signs include a harsh, dry cough, difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance, coughing when picked up or excited, and fainting. Small-breed dogs, such as Yorkshire terriers, Pomeranians, poodles, and Chihuahuas, are at increased risk. In addition, overweight dogs and those who live with smokers are at higher risk.
  • Heart disease — Heart disease can cause dogs to cough because, when the heart isn’t pumping effectively, fluid can accumulate in the lungs, resulting in a cough. In addition, in some conditions, the heart enlarges and can press on airways, stimulating a cough reflex. 
  • Laryngeal paralysis — Normally, muscles on either side of the trachea keep the airway open when a dog breathes in, and relax when the dog breathes out. When a dog has laryngeal paralysis, these muscles no longer hold the airway open during inhalation. Signs include panting, a raspy cough, difficulty breathing, and exercise intolerance.

The coughing cat

Concerning conditions that cause cats to cough include:

  • Asthma — An allergic reaction to inhaled allergens causes airway narrowing and swelling, and mucous accumulation, which results in coughing. Other signs include difficulty breathing, wheezing, panting, and vomiting. During an attack, many cats crouch close to the ground and extend their neck in an effort to breathe better.
  • Respiratory infections — Many pathogens, including feline herpesvirus, feline calicivirus, feline chlamydiosis, and Bordetella, can cause coughing in cats. Other signs include sneezing, nasal and ocular discharge, and ulcers in the mouth or on the nose. Cats exposed to many other cats are at higher risk.
  • Heartworm disease — Cats are atypical heartworm hosts, and when the heartworm larvae migrate to the cat’s lungs, their immune system mounts a strong response, resulting in a massive inflammatory response in the lung tissue. This condition leads to coughing and can mimic feline asthma signs. 
  • Cancer — When a malignancy involves the respiratory tract, coughing may be one of the first signs.

Diagnosing the coughing pet

If your pet is exhibiting signs, such as fever, lethargy, nasal discharge, decreased appetite, or difficulty breathing, they should be evaluated by a veterinary professional. In addition, if your pet’s cough continues for several days, they should be examined, to ensure nothing serious is causing their cough. To determine the cause of your pet’s cough, our Walnut Creek Veterinary Hospital team will perform these diagnostics:

  • Blood work — Blood work, such as a complete blood count and a biochemistry profile, will be performed to test for infection, and to evaluate organ health. In addition, a heartworm test may be recommended if your pet hasn’t been tested recently.
  • Chest X-rays — X-rays of your pet’s chest may be needed to assess their heart and lung health.
  • Ultrasound — Your pet’s heart and lungs may be imaged via an ultrasound, to better determine what is causing the problem.
  • Endoscopy — To visualize your pet’s airway, an endoscope may be inserted down their throat to evaluate their larynx and trachea. This procedure is performed under general anesthesia. 

Treating the coughing pet

Cough treatment depends on the underlying cause. 

  • Respiratory infection — Bacterial respiratory infections can be addressed using antibiotics, but viral infections typically resolve only with supportive care. 
  • Tracheal collapse — Weight loss can be helpful for overweight pets, and medications to reduce airway spasms and inflammation may also be prescribed. In severe cases, surgical intervention is required to keep the airway open.
  • Heart disease — Treatment depends on the heart disease type affecting your pet, but various heart medications are available. In addition, your pet’s diet may be changed to address their condition.
  • Laryngeal paralysis — Surgery to keep the airway open is typically needed to prevent breathing issues in affected pets. 
  • Asthma — Asthmatic pets are typically treated using steroids and bronchodilators. 
  • Heartworm disease — No heartworm disease treatment is available for cats, and treatment for dogs is dangerous. The best option is preventing heartworms with year-round heartworm prevention medications.
  • Cancer — If your pet has cancer, their cancer type will determine their treatment.

A coughing pet can be concerning, but not all issues are serious. However, if your pet has a cough that has you worried, contact our team at Walnut Creek Veterinary Hospital as soon as possible, so we can discover the cause.