Integrative Pet Vet column: There are many causes for coughing in the dog
Integrative Pet Vet
Coughing is a normal process designed to rid the body of irritants, mucus or foreign particles from the throat, upper airways and lungs. A cough is triggered by receptors in the airway and controlled by cough centers in the brain.
Occasional coughing in dogs is not a cause for concern. However, ongoing, repetitive coughing can be. The duration and severity of the cough is important to recognize along with determining whether the cough is productive. These characteristics play a role in diagnosing the cause of the cough and outlining the therapy plan.
There are numerous causes or triggers for coughing. Some triggers are minor problems while others are the result of severe health concerns. Common causes of coughing include infections like kennel cough or canine influenza, collapsing trachea, reactive airway disease, heart disease, heartworms, pneumonia and cancer. Clearly, this list represents a wide range of problems that require different treatments.
Dogs affected by kennel cough and canine influenza can have a goose honk or gagging type of cough that occurs after exposure to other coughing dogs. These infections may be self-limiting and resolve on their own in 7-14 days.
Even though these infections are viral, antibiotics can be important for controlling the secondary bacterial component in severely affected dogs. Support of the immune system and tissue lining the respiratory tract can be important for rapid recovery. Some dogs need cough suppressants to break the cough cycle because coughing causes irritation in the trachea.
Dogs can have a cough associated with allergy reactions in the airways. These allergic reactions are to an inhaled substance that is often undetermined. Examples of potential airborne allergens include dust, mold, smoke or pollens. Avoidance of the triggering allergen is of obvious benefit. Steroids are often used to control the allergic reaction.
Some parasites migrate through the lung tissue as part of their life cycle so administering routine deworming medications can be important for controlling the allergic reaction. Nutritional support of the lung tissue can also be beneficial for long-term management.
The problem of collapsing trachea tends to occur in middle-aged and older small breed dogs like the Pomeranian, toy poodle and Maltese. In affected dogs, the cartilage in the trachea gets soft and is unable to effectively hold the trachea open during breathing. In some cases the collapse can be severe enough that the dog is in significant distress. Interestingly, many of the affected dogs also end up with abnormal liver tests. The correlation between the trachea and liver is unclear. Supportive care includes supplements to support the cartilage and liver. Cough suppressants may be used depending on the severity. Drugs or herbs to reduce anxiety may be beneficial for long-term management.
Coughing can also result from heart disease when the heart is in failure and fluid is building up in the lung tissue or when the heart is enlarged and pressing on the trachea. Pressure on the trachea gives the sensation of something in the airway which triggers the cough reaction. Managing a failing heart often requires urgent care with multiple drugs to improve the heart contractions, modify the blood pressure and clear excess fluid. Herbs like hawthorn berry may be of benefit (see previous article “Valve disease common cause of canine heart murmurs”).
It is clear from the wide range of problems that can result in coughing that it is essential to obtain a clear diagnosis. This allows treatment to be directed at the source of the cough. Supportive care may also involve using vitamins like A and C to improve the lining of the airways. Herbs like andrographis and mushrooms like coriolus may improve the immune response. Herbs like slippery elm may be helpful as an expectorant. The cough may need to be suppressed in order to break the cough cycle. However, the cough is an important defensive reaction and caution is needed when suppressing the cough.
If you have questions about your coughing dog, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.