Solving the Coughing Conundrum in Pets

By Dr. Laura Hady    

While an occasional cough should not always concern pet owners, a cough that continues past a few days should be assessed by a veterinarian. Some of the causes of coughs include infectious diseases, structural diseases, heart disease, or chronic airway inflammation. Letting your veterinarian know vaccine status, travel history, heartworm prevention status, time of day the coughing tends to occur, its duration, and any activities that lead to the coughing can help support a diagnosis and resolution. The following list will give you an idea of the symptoms associated with specific types of cough:

  • Canine infectious respiratory disease (kennel cough) includes Bordetella bronchiseptica as just one of the several bacteria and viruses (including canine influenza) that cause this disease. Symptoms included a rather loud, honking cough – with or without retching – that may be combined with a fever and decreased appetite. While kennel cough is highly contagious to other dogs, cats and humans are not affected. Vaccination for Bordetella is highly recommended for dogs who board at kennels, attend a doggie day care, enter a shelter, or get groomed. Your veterinarian can test for the disease and provide cough medications and antibiotics if warranted.  Most cases will resolve in five to seven days.
  • Collapsing trachea can be thought of as getting a bend in the body’s internal straw, known as the trachea (windpipe). Certain small breeds (Pomeranians, Yorkshire terriers, and Chihuahuas) are either born with this or may acquire it as the cartilage of the trachea weakens with age. Since the airway is not fully opened, adequate air cannot reach the lower airways. The loud goose honk cough may worsen with excitement, exercise, eating, or drinking. Your veterinarian can diagnose this condition on radiographs, prescribe medications to help the cough, and even provide a referral to a surgical specialist if a tracheal stent is warranted.
  • Laryngeal paralysis occurs when the muscles that open the larynx (voice box) weaken due to degenerating nerves, resulting in less air getting into the lower airways. This tends to affect older, large breed dogs. Impacted pets often have raspy breathing during inspiration. The condition is exacerbated by hot, humid weather and obesity. Dogs with laryngeal paralysis often cannot exercise as much and may even have a blue tinge to their gums or tongue. While some medications may help lessen the cough, your veterinarian may recommend surgery to tie the affected muscles back to help get more oxygen to the lungs.
  • Feline asthma is an incurable but manageable disease that has an underlying allergic reaction. The condition causes narrowing in the bronchial tree, leading to wheezing, difficulty breathing, and coughing in cats, often presenting symptoms at about 4 to 5 years of age. During an emergency, cats may try to extend their necks forward while crouching their body close to the ground. Day-to-day care can involve oral steroids and specially-designed inhalers, while emergencies may require injectable medications and oxygen.
  • Heartworm disease can occur in both cats and dogs even though we live in an arid environment. It just takes one mosquito to inject a tiny form of the heartworm called the microfilariae, which will set up residence in the pulmonary artery and right ventricle. Signs of heartworm disease include exercise intolerance, coughing, decreased appetite, and fluid in the abdomen in the late stages. Heartworm disease can be prevented with monthly preventative chewable pills. Treatment includes the preventative to kill the microfilariae, anti-inflammatories, an antibiotic to kill the associated bacteria, and a drug to kill the adult heartworms.
  • Heart disease will result in a cough when the valves inside the heart, particularly those on the left side, are not working properly and there is a backup of blood in veins forcing fluid into the lungs. The cough is typically moist and may occur when the animal has been lying down. Other signs of heart disease include sleeping more, difficulty breathing, exercise weakness, and collapse. Cats with heart disease tend not to cough but may have a decreased appetite. Annual pet exams allow your veterinarian to monitor your pet for any signs of early heart disease, including murmurs (abnormal blood flow in the valves), increased heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms, or problems with breathing. Further diagnostics include X-rays, ultrasound, and ECGs (electrocardiograms) to determine your pet’s residual heart function. Heart medications can help the heart beat more efficiently and also decrease the workload on the heart.

The key to receiving a specific diagnosis and treatment for cough in pets requires early examination by a veterinarian and a thorough history. Videos of your pet coughing can also be extremely helpful. With the proper medication and advice, you can help your furry friends get to feeling better and resting more comfortably, which means more sleep for you.

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