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Quiz Result: Your Senior Dog is Coughing Up Phlegm or Mucus, and Does Not Appear to be Well

Score for Seniors:
Activity Level:
Weight: Pounds

Your situation:
✓ your dog is a senior dog
✓ your dog has a wet cough (phlegm or mucus)

✓ your dog is also showing other signs of illness)
(If this is NOT your situation, click here.)

There are many different types of coughs. A cough that sounds “wet” or results in the production of mucus and phlegm, which is coughed up, is often termed a “productive” cough. A wet cough combined with a dog that isn’t feeling well is a cause for immediate concern. Let’s review your dog’s situation and what you should consider doing.

Signs That You Need to Monitor When Your Dog Is Coughing

Signs of a dog not feeling well that you need to pay particular attention to include the following:

  • Not eating well
  • Lethargy (lack of energy)
  • Any difficulty breathing

If your dog is coughing up phlegm or mucus and any of these above signs are also seen, please take your dog to their veterinarian as soon as possible. Wet coughs in dogs that are not feeling well may be caused by pneumonia, heart disease, or cancer, so it’s important to work with your veterinarian on a treatment plan. However, there are also other causes that could be causing your dog to have a wet cough and not feel well. Let’s look at the most likely causes:

Most Likely Causes for a Wet Cough (Phlegm/Mucus) in an Old Dog Not Feeling Well

Like humans, our senior pets often combat different diseases and conditions than their more youthful counterparts. In the instance of a senior dog with a wet cough and not feeling well, the primary concerns are the following:

1. Heart Disease

The most common type of heart disease we see in dogs is dilated cardiomyopathy. This heart condition results in a “stretched out,” flabby heart that loses the ability to contract properly. This leads to sluggish blood flow and fluid buildup in the lungs and abdomen.

Dogs with heart disease often cough first thing in the morning or after getting up from lying down. This is due to the fluid pooling in the lungs. It can be difficult to ascertain if the cough is “dry” or “wet” from simply hearing the dog cough. Poor oxygenation and difficulty breathing may lead to the dog not feeling well. At this point, the dog is in congestive heart failure, and it is an emergency.

There are treatments available to help ease congestive heart failure; however, it cannot be cured. Depending on the severity of the condition when diagnosed, costs may range from a few hundred dollars to thousands.

2. Cancer

Sadly, cancer is very common in older dogs. A wet cough in an also sick dog may indicate a primary lung cancer or the presence of metastasis from a cancer located elsewhere in the body that has spread to the lungs. Depending on the situation, treatment may be possible, but the prognosis for these pups is usually poor. If your dog is diagnosed with cancer, you may want to work with a veterinary oncologist to formulate a treatment plan.

3. Pneumonia

Pneumonia occurs when there is fluid in the lungs. This may result from a contagious infection caused by a virus or bacteria, cancer, heart disease, aspiration, or a fungal infection. It is essential to decipher what is causing the pneumonia, so it may be successfully treated. Typically, this will include chest x-rays, blood work, and possibly using endoscopy to obtain lung fluid and tissue samples for evaluation.

All of the conditions that cause pneumonia are serious and require prompt medical care. Treatment will depend on the cause and the severity, and costs will also vary widely. If your dog has any difficulty breathing, this is an absolute emergency, and you must take them to the nearest veterinarian right away.

How To Help Your Coughing Dog at Home

If your senior dog is coughing and does not appear to be well, they need to be seen by your veterinarian. There are many causes of dog coughs, and the treatments are varied. If left untreated, many conditions will worsen and may become life-threatening. The sooner your dog is seen and treated, the sooner they will be feeling better!


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


While you coordinate with your veterinarian to help evaluate your dog, there may be things you can do at home to help provide relief to your dog. Let’s have a look with the help of our veterinarian expert Dr. Debra Eldredge.

8 Best Home Remedies To Help Your Coughing Dog

Our veterinarian Dr. Debra Eldredge – author of the best-selling book “Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” – has compiled for us a list of the most effective home remedies to help coughing dogs:

1. Start with Simple Home Care: If your dog has discharge from his eyes or his nose, use a warm compress to soften the crusts and clean gently. A dab of vitamin E (puncture a capsule with a pin and squeeze out a drop) can help with a sore nose. Artificial tears drops or ointment can be safely applied to his eyes.

2. Use a Humidifier or Steam: Excessively dry air can cause coughing in dogs. If you have a humidifier, encourage your dog to rest in that area. 

3. Use a Teaspoon of Honey: People also often reach for honey when they have a cough. A teaspoon of honey in a cup of warm water may ease a short throat. This is not recommended for puppies (think about infant cautions) or for dogs with diabetes as it can interfere with glucose regulation.

4. Consider Limiting Physical Activity in Cold Weather: Very cold, dry air outside can stimulate coughing as well as dry air inside. Senior dogs don’t handle extreme cold well. Keep walks short and limited. 

5. Use a Non-Restrictive Harness Instead of a Collar: Be sure that you use a non-restrictive harness for walks. Do not walk your dog on a collar. The pressure on the trachea can stimulate more coughing.

6. Give your Dog a Quiet Place to Rest: Coughing can be exhausting. Make sure your dog has a quiet place to rest, away from active children or other pets.

7. Increase Hydration: It is important to support your dog’s hydration when he has a cough: coughing can increase his normal hydration needs. If your dog is not drinking enough water, consider trying homemade chicken soup, low or no sodium bouillon, or adding some juice from tuna canned in water or other meat juice flavoring (plain) to his water.

8. Over the Counter Cough Medication: Dextromethorphan is a common ingredient in human OTC cough medications such as Robitussin. It can be helpful for some dogs short term. This is an “off label” medication so you should check with your veterinarian about use in your individual dog. It is not recommended for dogs with liver problems or for dogs on a number of medications.

Reading the entire article: 8 Best Home Remedies to Help a Coughing Dog (Vet Advice).

Important note: the home remedies mentioned here are only supportive ideas to help your dog with symptoms – they are not likely helping with the root cause. A visit to your veterinarian is important to help understand the root cause and define an effective treatment plan. Additionally, you should not administer any over-the-counter medications to your pet, either human or veterinary, without permission from your veterinarian.

When Is Coughing Serious Enough to See Your Vet?

You might be wondering if your dog’s cough or gagging is serious enough to justify a visit to your veterinarian. It can be hard to know as an owner when a cough is serious enough to warrant veterinary attention.

A dog may occasionally cough to clear their throat or if something irritates them. That’s usually not a cause for concern. However veterinary attention is likely required if a cough:

Disclaimer: This website's content is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your local veterinarian for health decisions. Learn more.

  • becomes persistent,
  • lasts more than 2 days, or
  • becomes more frequent or severe

Additionally, a cough is always serious if it comes with breathing difficulties, if your dog is generally unwell in themselves or if they are coughing up large amounts of phlegm or blood.

As a general rule, it may be ok to just monitor your dog’s cough at home, f your dog is still:

  • bright in themselves and
  • eating and drinking as normal

Since coughing can be a symptom of a serious ailment, it’s important to be cautious and take your dog to the veterinarian if you are unsure about what to do.

What Will the Vet Ask You

It’s important to be prepared for the basic questions your vet will want to ask about your old dog’s coughing or gagging. Being able to answer your vet’s questions will help improve diagnosis and ultimately solve the issue faster for your canine friend. Questions may include:

  • How can you describe the cough? (choking, gagging, retching, gasping or throat clearing noise, etc?) – it may not even be a cough at all!
  • How frequent is the cough? Is coughing on a daily basis, several times per day?
  • How long has coughing been going on?
  • Are there any other symptoms associated with the cough such as breathing issues?
  • Is the cough productive – i.e. does your dog bring anything up when they cough?
  • Does the cough appear to come more from the throat or chest?
  • Does anything trigger the cough? Or does it happen in a specific environment?

How Will Your Vet Diagnose the Issue?

Your vet will start by taking a thorough history (see how to prepare for the visit below) and by performing a physical examination on your dog. They will pay particular attention to any abnormal heart or breathing sounds, the heart rate and rhythm and your dogs temperature. By using all of this information, they will then decide the best next course of action.

Sometimes your vet may opt to start a trial treatment plan and base the diagnosis on the response to medication. For example, in the case of kennel cough, anti-inflammatory medication is often all that is required and if your dog responds well then it’s likely that kennel cough was the cause.

However, if a heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythm is detected then a heart ultrasound scan and X-rays might be the next step. This will help evaluate whether or not your dog’s heart has signs of congestive heart failure such as thickening of the heart walls, inefficient heart valves or fluid build up within the lungs.

X-rays are a key tool in evaluating any dog that has developed a persistent cough. By taking an X-ray of your dogs chest and lungs, vets will be able to visualise the distribution of air within the lungs. A healthy dogs lungs should appear dark on an X-ray as they are full of air; the presence of any lighter coloured areas may indicate thickening within the lungs or even fluid build up. There are many different ‘lung patterns’ that can be identified on an X-ray that can point towards a specific diagnosis.

In some cases your vet may want to perform a ‘broncho-alveolar lavage’, this involves inserting a small volume of sterile fluid into your dog’s lungs and then aspirating it back out. The idea is that by sucking that fluid back out the vet will also gain a sample of the types of cells or even bacteria present in the lungs, further helping reach a diagnosis.

Learn more about coughing in senior dogs:

Final words: If your dog is coughing and does not feel well, it is imperative to have them seen by a veterinarian immediately: for example, respiratory distress can come on quickly and be hard to recognize. Your dog may need oxygen therapy.

Additionally, you should not administer any over-the-counter medications to your pet, either human or veterinary, without permission from your veterinarian. These medications may be toxic, contraindicated in your specific dog’s situation, or even make the condition worse.

Learn more about coughing issues in senior dogs and treatment options.

Authors

  • Dr. Jamie Whittenburg is the Director and Owner of Kingsgate Animal Hospital, a a full-service animal hospital providing comprehensive pet healthcare services in Lubbock, TX. She graduated from Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine (DVM).

  • Dr Debra Eldredge, DVM, graduated from Cornell University, where she was the first recipient of the Gentle Doctor Award, a prize given by the clinical faculty for the best patient care. She is an award-winning author of more than 20 books on pets (including the “Dog Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook”).

Disclaimer: This website's content is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action. Read More.

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