Why is My Pet Coughing?

Your pet coughs when their throat, airway, or lungs are irritated, and the cause may be many benign factors, such as hairballs and pollen. However, other more concerning conditions can also instigate coughing. Our team at Ambleside Animal Hospitalwants to help by providing information about why pets cough, and explaining when you should be concerned.

What are common reasons dogs cough?

If your dog swallows something that irritates their throat, they may have a coughing spell that resolves quickly. However, more persistent coughing can signal a more significant problem. Common reasons dogs cough include:

  • Kennel cough — Also known as infectious canine tracheobronchitis, this disease can be caused by several different bacteria and viruses, and dogs who are boarded or housed in close contact with other dogs are at higher risk for contracting the disease. Many dogs appear healthy, except for a forceful, hacking cough, although other signs, including sneezing and discharge from the eyes and nose, may be present. Kennel cough is typically not dangerous, and usually resolves without medication. However, in vulnerable dogs, such as puppies, senior dogs, and those with pre-existing illnesses, the disease can progress to pneumonia. Your dog’s core vaccinations include some common pathogens that cause kennel cough, and an intranasal vaccination is available for Bordetella bronchiseptica, the most common bacteria isolated in kennel cough.
  • Heart disease — Dogs affected by heart disease cough for many reasons. As the damaged heart loses the ability to efficiently pump blood throughout the body, fluid can accumulate in the lungs, stimulating coughing. In addition, the dog’s heart may enlarge because of the condition, and put pressure on the trachea, stimulating coughing. In addition, heart disease caused by heartworms can result in coughing when the parasites invade lung tissue.
  • Tracheal collapse — The trachea is a flexible tube with cartilage rings that help keep the airway open. In some dogs, these rings weaken and start to flatten, resulting in tracheal collapse, a chronic, progressive disease that can compromise the dog’s airway. Signs include a harsh, dry cough that resembles a goose honking, difficulty breathing, coughing when excited, and fainting. Small-breed dogs and overweight dogs are at increased risk. Weight loss and medications to reduce airway inflammation and spasms can help in some cases, but surgical intervention is required in severe cases.
  • Foreign object — Many dogs love to chew toys and objects, and if they accidentally swallow a piece that dislodges while they chew, the pieces can become stuck in their throat, resulting in coughing and choking. 

What are common reasons cats cough?

Cats typically do not cough as much as dogs, but they most commonly cough for these reasons:

  • Hairballs — Hairballs can accumulate in your cat’s stomach when they swallow hair while grooming. To avoid complications, such as intestinal blockage, cats cough, retch, and gag, to remove the hairball. This is a normal occurrence, but should happen no more than about once a month.
  • Asthma — When inhaled, pollen, mold, dust mites, smoke, and other allergens can cause inflammation in the airway, triggering feline asthma. In addition to coughing, other signs include difficulty breathing, open-mouthed breathing, lethargy, and vomiting. Feline asthma can’t be cured, but management techniques include corticosteroids and bronchodilators, to decrease inflammation and open the airways.
  • Respiratory infections — Cats are commonly affected by respiratory infections, including feline herpesvirus and calicivirus. Signs typically include sneezing, conjunctivitis, ocular and nasal discharge, and coughing. Vaccines that can minimize your cat’s risk are available against these diseases.

When should I be concerned that my pet is coughing?

If your pet has a brief coughing episode that resolves quickly, you can monitor your pet for further signs. However, concerning factors include:

  • Other signs — If your pet is exhibiting other signs, such as fever, lethargy, and decreased appetite, they should be evaluated by a veterinary professional.
  • Difficulty breathing — If your pet is having difficulty breathing, they need immediate veterinary attention. Signs include open-mouthed breathing, increased respiratory effort, exaggerated abdominal movements during breathing, pale or blue-tinged mucous membranes, head and neck extension in an effort to get more air, and collapse.
  • Several days — If your pet’s cough persists for several days, they should be examined by a veterinarian.

How can I prevent my pet from coughing?

Not every coughing incident can be prevented, but some precautions can decrease your pet’s risk.

  • Wellness exams — Bring your pet in for regular wellness exams so that conditions such as heart disease and asthma can be diagnosed in the early stages when they are easier to treat and manage.
  • Vaccinations — Ensure your pet stays up to date on their vaccinations, to prevent avoidable infectious diseases.
  • Parasite control — Provide year-round parasite prevention medication to protect your pet from parasites that can damage their lungs.
  • Weight management — Keep your pet at a healthy weight, so weight does not contribute to issues that affect their lungs and trachea.
  • Foreign objects — Ensure your pet’s toys don’t have small pieces, and can’t be chewed apart, to avoid choking hazards.

Taking these steps can help protect your pet from conditions that result in coughing. If your pet has a cough that concerns you, contact our team at Ambleside Animal Hospital, so we can help them breathe easily again.