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Older Dog Coughing – An Owner’s Guide

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wIf your older dog is coughing, we can help you understand why and what you can do about it.
(Note: if your dog is wheezing, see our article: my old dog is wheezing).

Is it the sort of cough that lingers or is chronic? If so, it could be a sign that there’s something serious going on ‘behind-the-scenes’.

Why is my older dog coughing?

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why a dog might cough, and many of them are not a cause for concern.

But in older dogs, couching can be more serious, and while there are many possible causes of coughing, there are three which you should be aware of.

What Causes Coughing In Older Dogs?

Unfortunately, older dogs are more likely to develop health conditions. Some will be minor and others more serious. Let’s first look at the (relatively) minor reasons.

old dog couching hard

Minor Reasons

Your older dog’s cough might sometimes just be due to a tickle in his throat, allergy, respiratory infection or ‘old dog lungs’. The latter is a normal, age-related change which results in the lungs becoming less elastic, and more fibrous, which in turn causes them to be less pliable when breathing in and out. However, all these conditions are rarely serious, and most can be treated or managed by your veterinarian.

But even though coughing is sometimes no need for concern, it can also be a result of a serious ailment. Therefore, it’s important to take your senior dog to the vet if the coughing is persistent, forceful or if your dog is experiencing breathing difficulties or other symptoms.

Of the three serious conditions further mentioned below, heart disease is the most common in senior dogs, and the longer it is overlooked, the worse the prognosis. Therefore, don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian to check over your golden oldie to determine the cause for his cough.

Heart Disease

Dogs don’t have heart attacks the way we humans do, and the signs of canine heart problems are quite varied, and sometimes very subtle.

A persistent cough is just one of them, but it’s a good indicator that something isn’t right with your dog’s heart. This is also often coupled with symptoms such as lack of energy, fainting or collapsing, and difficulty breathing, however sometimes a soft, persistent cough is all that’s apparent.

Coughing, especially after exercise, when lying down, or on waking up, is a common symptom of Congestive Heart Failure in dogs. This is when the heart is no longer pumping effectively, resulting in fluid buildup in the lungs.

However, coughing can also be a result of an enlarged heart. Just above the heart sits a cluster of cough receptors, at an anatomical site called the bronchial bifurcation (which is just a scientific name for where the bronchi split to go to each lung). The heart pressing on this area can also result in coughing.

Heart failure in smaller, older dogs is most often the end result of mitral valve disease. This is a condition where a valve in the heart does not close effectively. Due to this, some blood is forced backwards when the heart pumps, meaning the heart has to work extra hard to still pump the same amount of blood as before.

Other causes of heart failure, particularly in larger breed dogs, include dilated cardiomyopathy, cordae tendinae rupture and causes of arrhythmias, such as an atrioventricular block. Congenital heart diseases also occur, however often become apparent at younger stages of life.

It’s important to consider that non-structural heart conditions can also lead to heart failure. These can happen at any age, and include cancer, pericardial infections, pericardial effusion, and heartworm.


WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]


Damage from a heartworm infestation can cause your dog many of the same symptoms.

If your older dog’s coughing as well as showing other signs of heart problems (and he isn’t taking a monthly heart preventative) then your vet will want to rule out heartworm as the cause of the problem.

Over time, the extra workload that this puts on the heart muscles, causes your dog’s heart to become enlarged as the muscle walls thicken.

This can put pressure on the trachea.

It’s the combination of these two things that produce the characteristic, and chronic, cough that senior dogs with heart disease develop.

A dog heart-failure-induced cough might sound ‘dry’ or ‘hacking’ … sort of like a ‘barking cough’.

Or it could be ‘wet’…. this means it sounds as though there is mucus or fluid in his chest, he may gag a little too.

A lot depends on the stage the heart problems have reached, and what’s going on inside your older dog’s chest.

Although there’s no ‘cure’ for heart failure, it can often be ‘managed’ with medication which reduce symptoms and improve your dog’s quality of life.

Heart medications may help the underlying problem, but they often don’t do much to alleviate a cough.

But, PawHealer Hound Honey Heart Syrup  just might. This is an all-natural cough suppressant formulated specifically for dogs who have a heart-related cough and are on heart medication.

It’s for the cough only, not the underlying heart condition, but it can make your senior dog feel much more comfortable, sleep better, and reduces gagging and wheezing too. Please note: this is a symptomatic treatment only, and you should still seek veterinary attention to treat the heart condition. Remember to tell your vet about other medications your dog is taking, as well as their diet, as this can influence the treatments prescribed.

Cancerous Tumors

A tumor due to primary lung cancer, or cancer which has spread to the lungs, is also a common cause of an older dog coughing.

Dogs don’t smoke, but if their owners do then they’re at as much risk of second-hand smoke as the rest of us are!

If you live a big city, where there’s a lot of traffic or pollution, this can also cause lung problems for your dog, including lung cancer.

Tumors in your dog’s lung/s could also be secondary tumors… which means that they’ve been ‘seeded’ from the original tumor which could be in another part of his body.

In senior dogs, secondary tumors are the most common kind, but primary lung cancer can also happen.

The most obvious sign of a lung tumor is a persistent cough. Often, it’s a ‘wet’ cough, which sounds as though there is fluid/mucus in his lungs.

A common tumor in large breed, older dogs is a bone tumor. This is known as an osteosarcoma. It very quickly spreads to the lungs, and as well as coughing, you are likely to notice lameness as well.

It is important to consult your veterinarian to diagnose whether your dog has cancer early on. The earlier on in the disease process your dog receives treatment, the better his prognosis will be.

Depending on what he finds, your vet may be able to completely remove the tumor, and he may recommend other additional treatments depending on how advanced (or widespread) the cancer is. Veterinary treatments in the cancer field are now very advanced, and so even though cancer can be a distressing diagnosis, there are often many options to treat it and keep your dog’s quality of life good for as long as possible.

Laryngeal Paralysis

Another common old-dog cause of coughing is laryngeal paralysis, which happens when something goes wrong with the muscles and nerves that control your senior dog’s laryngeal function. It is particularly common in larger breeds, especially Labradors.

The larynx is the structure at the back of your dog’s (and your) throat, which helps to keep the airways open.

It’s a partial paralysis and Fido can still breathe, but he can’t move as much air as normal through his larynx and into his lungs.

This can make him cough or gag, especially when he’s eating, excited or exercising. He may seem to have trouble breathing, pant a lot, gasp, or sound ‘wheezy’.

Symptoms tend to appear gradually over a period, and the earlier you achieve a diagnosis, the simpler and more effective the treatment.

If your older dog is showing any of these symptoms, and especially if his bark sounds different (hoarse, lower pitched or just ‘rough’) too, he could have laryngeal paralysis.

If this cause of old dog coughing isn’t recognized and treated early, it can worsen until you have an emergency where your dog can’t breathe due to exacerbation and inflammation of the larynx.

Don’t take a wait-and-see attitude here!

Your veterinarian will use a few different tests to confirm a diagnosis and determine what’s causing the paralysis. This might involve sedating your dog to visualize the larynx and intubate it if he is struggling to breathe.

Depending on the results of those tests, and how severe your older dog’s symptoms are, a treatment plan will be put in place.

There are several surgical options, and which one is best for your dog can only be decided by a veterinarian.

But it’s up to you to make sure that you discuss all options with your vet so that you know what route he’s going to take and what the prognosis is.

Other Reasons An Old Dog Might Cough

The three conditions above are the most common reason behind old dog coughing, but of course there are other conditions and diseases that cause a dog (of any age) to cough.

dog at the vet

They include:

  • Heartworm
  • Upper Respiratory Infection
  • Pneumonia
  • Kennel Cough
  • Distemper
  • Asthma
  • Foreign body stuck in throat or esophagus
  • Acid reflux
  • Valley Fever (a fungal infection)
  • Allergies

Natural Remedies & Coughing

Obviously, it’s vital to have your golden oldie checked out by your veterinarian to make sure that you know why he’s coughing and get any medication or treatment started as soon as possible. But, once you’ve got all that in place, one of these natural cough preparations may be just what you need to soothe an irritated trachea, help with the symptoms of kennel cough, and generally reduce coughing episodes.

PawHealer has a range of natural herbal cough medicines formulated for dogs, and for different types of coughs.

There are many natural cough remedies on the market, and while they may soothe a tickle in the throat, it’s important to determine the underlying cause of the cough first with the help of your veterinarian. He will be able to advise you on the best course of treatment for Fido, and whether any natural remedies will also be beneficial.

PawHealer syrup for Kennel Cough:

For collapsed trachea & more:

For gag/hack/wheeze:

After all, if your dog is happier, you will be happier too!

Authors

  • Dr Jo De Klerk is a principal Veterinarian at JDK Veterinarian Services. She is a board-certified veterinarian, who earned her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the prestigious Royal Veterinary College in London. She is registered with the RCVS and SAVC and has a Master’s degree in Animal Health and a Certificate in Veterinary Pain Management. Her clinical interest and focus is in pain management and rehabilitation. She is the author of ‘Tales from a Young Vet’ and ‘Old Dog Love’.

  • Dr. Winnie earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Duke University, a Masters of Science in Biology from St Georges University, and graduated from the University of Pretoria Veterinary School in South Africa.She has been an animal lover and owner all her life, having owned a Rottweiler named Duke, a Pekingese named Athena and now a Bull Mastiff named George, also known as big G! She is a full-time Veterinarian in South Africa specializing in internal medicine for large breed dogs. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband, 2 kids and Big G.


Related Article: Our Top 5 Tips to Care for Your Senior Dog
by Veterinarian Alex Crow.


 

13 Comments

  1. After reading symptoms of dog cough/gagging in this article.I think my buddy may have this Laryngeal Paralysis.
    Which doesn’t sound good

  2. I was diagnosed with Emphysema. My symptoms included shortness of breath, dizziness, lack of oxygen to all body parts, numbness of fingers, no energy, no appetite, fatigue, and bloodshot eyes. I was living at a place that has mold and mildew in the air conditioning unit. I also smoked a pack a day for 20 years. The Pulmonologist started me on Spiriva and Advair plus nose sprays, to reduce symptoms and slow down progression but I could not tolerate them for long due to severe side effects. I decided to adopt a more natural approach and started on Emphysema Disease Natural formula from THE HERBAL GARDENS, the Emphysema natural formula immensely helped my condition, it reversed my Emphysema. My severe shortness of breath, dry cough, low energy, fatigue, chest tightness and others gradually disappeared. Visit THE HERBAL GARDENS via their official web-site ww w. Theherbalgardens. org. This Emphysema treatment has improved the quality of my life greatly, i breath much better and feel comfortable doing so. Since the procedure I enjoy walking the dog for my daily exercise. DON’T GIVE UP HOPE!!!

  3. My small 16 yrs. old cockapoo was cough, hacking, gagging, took her vet., he said, give her half dose of Benadryl. I did, and guess what, she stopped all the gagging. It’s allergies! Works for my pet. Good Luck!

  4. My 14 year old cocker spaniel has had a cough for about a year now and he sometimes gags after a drink and coughs up a little water I’ve taken him to the vets and they say don’t worry about it I use the pdsa and they have been great in the past my girl cocker spaniel had this as well she passed away after having a stroke please help I am at a loss. Peter

  5. Idk what to do my dog is an 9 year old pitbull and over the past 2 or 3 months has been coughing and he also coughs up water after drinking. I’m worried he has heart worms idk anyone help??? [email protected]

  6. Please help I have no money and I have a pit bull she’s 8 and has a dry cough its only bad when she gets excited or runs I’m scared I don’t want it to be heartworms what can I do or anyone know what it could be please help

    • Hi Kristal,

      Hi there!

      Unfortunately it’s impossible to diagnose a cough just from a description, and there are lots of different possibilities as to what it could be. Even in the clinic, your vet will likely not be able to diagnose without some sort of tests – blood tests and x-rays are likely to be needed.
      I would recommend looking into care credit or borrowing money from family or friends in order to get her seen, as the sooner she is treated the better her outcome is going to be. You should also be upfront with your vet about what you can afford – we’re used to working with different budgets and will be able to offer options so that we can find the best for you and your dog. For instance, based on the exam your vet might recommend you trial a treatment rather than do the x-rays, or they may recommend x-rays instead of blood tests, or vice versa. They’ll talk you through all the costs as they go, but they can’t help you if they don’t know your concerns.

      I hope that helps – I really would get her seen sooner rather than later!

      Dr Joanna Woodnutt BVM BVS MRCVS – veterinarian

      PS: The info on our website is not a substitute for the professional in-person advice that your local veterinarian can provide.

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