This article was updated on September 13th, 2022
✓ Your dog is less than 8 years old
✓ Your dog has a dry cough (no phlegm or mucus)
✓ Your dog appears to have no other signs of illness
(If this is NOT your situation, click here)
If your dog has developed a cough, as a pet parent, you are understandably concerned. A cough is not a disease condition but is a sign of some type of dysfunction of the dog’s respiratory tract.
A 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).
Most Likely Causes for a Dry Cough in an Otherwise Healthy Young (< 8 Years Old) 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 a dog that is otherwise acting normal are:
1. Kennel Cough / Mild Upper Respiratory Infections.
What it looks like:
✓ Dry “honking” cough
✓ Some dogs still have high energy
✓ Some dogs still eat normally
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. Other symptoms may include a runny nose, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Like kids in daycare or school, these respiratory diseases are often diagnosed in dogs that have been around other dogs.
This is what Kennel Cough Sounds like (Video):
Treatments: 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. Collapsing Trachea
What it looks like:
✓ Dry coughing (often triggered by excitement or eating)
✓ Some dogs will have difficulty breathing
✓ Very common in small breed dogs
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. Other symptoms may include difficulty breathing, wheezing, gagging, or retching. A collapsing trachea can often be seen on chest x-rays.
This is what a dog coughing due to collapsing trachea may sound like:
Treatments: Treating a collapsing trachea involves weight loss, anti-inflammatories, allergy medications, and other interventions as necessary. Keeping the dog at an appropriate weight and away from irritants will also help.
✓ Dry coughing
✓ Runny eyes or nose
✓ Licking paws or scratching
Though not very common in dogs, a dry cough in an otherwise healthy animal may be the result of allergies or asthma.
Treatments: 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.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
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.
4. Heartworm Disease
What it looks like:
✓ Mild dry cough
✓ Lack of energy
✓ Lack of appetite
Heartworm disease in dogs is caused by Dirofilaria immitis, which are worms that are carried and transmitted by mosquitoes.
Treatments: Heartworm disease, if left untreated, may be fatal. Unfortunately, there is often extensive heart and lung damage before any clinical signs are seen. All dogs should receive heartworm prevention in accordance with their veterinarian’s guidance, as well as a heartworm test annually.
Disclaimer: Other medical conditions causing dogs to cough include cancer, endocrine disease, autoimmune disease, foreign material in the throat, and others. It is important to meet with your veterinarian to perform a full medical exam and ensure correct diagnosis and treatment.
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.
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
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.
Continue reading: 8 Best Home Remedies to Help a Coughing Dog (Vet Advice).
Important: the home remedies mentioned here are only supportive ideas to help your dog with symptoms – they are not likely to help with the root cause. A visit to your veterinarian is important to help understand the root cause and define an effective treatment plan.
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, if 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!
- Is the cough productive – i.e. does your dog bring anything up when they cough?
- Are there any other signs associated with the cough such as breathing issues or lack of appetite
- How frequent is the cough? Is coughing on a daily basis, several times per day?
- How long has coughing been going on?
- 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.
Related article: How to help your coughing dog at home: