This article was updated on September 1st, 2022
✓ your dog is a senior dog
✓ your dog has a dry cough
✓ your dog is otherwise acting normal (no other signs of illness)
(If this is NOT your situation, click here.)
If your senior dog has developed a dry cough, as a pet parent, you are understandably concerned, even if your dog appears to be otherwise fine or acting normal. A dry cough is not a disease condition but is a symptom of some type of dysfunction of the dog’s respiratory tract.
A dry dog’s cough can be caused by many issues but is typically the result of an infectious process, inflammatory conditions, cardiac disease, or structural issues (collapsing trachea, laryngeal paralysis). In older dogs, a dry cough can also, unfortunately, be a sign of lung cancer. Let’s look at the most likely causes for a dry cough in an otherwise healthy senior dog.
Most Likely Causes for a Dry Cough in an Otherwise Healthy Senior Dog
Evaluating the type of cough, as well as the dog’s overall health, can give us a clue as to what is the most likely cause. The most common causes of a dry cough in an old dog who is otherwise acting normal are:
1. Mild Upper Respiratory Infections
Infectious respiratory diseases, including viruses and bacterial causes such as “kennel cough”, are extremely common. Many healthy dogs will develop a dry, “honking” cough with these illnesses but will still have good energy and be eating and drinking well. Like diseases spreading with kids in daycare or school, these respiratory diseases are often diagnosed in dogs that have been around other dogs.
Mild upper respiratory infections may be treated with antibiotics, if bacterial, or medications may be given just to ease clinical signs. Dogs may require anti-inflammatories, cough suppressants, or expectorants.
The cost to treat a mild upper respiratory infection varies widely depending on diagnostics and treatments needed. Typically, this trip to the vet will run anywhere from $75 to $500.
2. Heart issues
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, or when lying down or 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. It is a common reason for coughing with older dogs.
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 backward 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.
Learn more about heart issues in senior dogs.
3. Collapsing Trachea
Collapsing trachea is very common in small breed dogs who have small tracheas and less rigid tracheal ring cartilage. Episodes of tracheal collapse may be triggered by excitement, exercise, eating and drinking, or allergens in the air such as pollen and smoke. When the dog inhales deeply, the trachea collapses and causes the dog to cough and gag.
-A collapsing trachea can often be seen on chest x-rays.
-Treating a collapsing trachea involves weight loss, anti-inflammatories, allergy medications, and other medications as necessary. Keeping the dog thin and away from irritants will also help.
Though not very common in dogs, a dry cough in an otherwise healthy animal may be the result of allergies or asthma.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
–Your veterinarian will likely take chest x-rays and ask for a thorough history to determine if this is the cause of your dog’s coughing. Being able to explain when your dog coughs will be helpful for your veterinarian.
–Treatment consists of allergy medications, anti-inflammatories, and bronchodilators. With an exam, chest x-rays, and medications, the initial visit is likely to cost between $200-$500.
Unfortunately, a cough is a very non-specific sign in a dog, and it may be caused by many, many things. The above list is in no way comprehensive, and all coughing dogs should be seen by their veterinarian in a timely manner to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.
5. Other causes
Many medical conditions can cause dry coughing in dogs. To learn more, read our article about Senior Dog Coughing. You should also make sure to meet with your veterinarian to get help quickly: early intervention is key in these instances. If your senior dog begins coughing, they need to be seen by their veterinarian as soon as possible.
Let’s now review several ways to give your dog some relief at home.
How To Help a Coughing Dog at Home
If your dog is coughing, 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!
While waiting for your appointment, there are a few things you can do to make your dog more comfortable.
- Separate your dog from other pets: first, separate them from other pets in the household. Not only do you want to keep any infection from spreading, but you also want to enable the ill pet to rest without the pestering and activity of other pets.
- Provide a quiet place to rest: provide a warm, quiet place for the sick dog where they are comfortable, and make sure they have access to food and water.
- Be mindful of heat/cold temperatures: do not leave a coughing dog outside in the heat or the cold and do not allow them to exercise.
Let’s review effective home remedies, as described below by our veterinarian expert Dr. Debra Eldredge:
8 Best Home Remedies To Help Your Coughing Dog
Our veterinarian expert Dr. Debra Eldredge – author of the best-selling book “The 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 described above help with coughing symptoms only, not the underlying conditions that may be causing the cough to start with. However, they can help make your senior dog feel much more comfortable, sleep better, and reduces gagging and wheezing too. You should still seek veterinary attention to treat the underlying condition as soon as you can. Remember to tell your vet about other medications your dog is taking, as well as their diet, as this can influence the treatments prescribed.
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:
- 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 dog’s 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 dog’s 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. This will help reach a diagnosis.
Learn more about coughing in senior dogs:
Disclaimer: This website's content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your veterinarian for healthcare decisions. Read More.