Coughing is a simple reflex that is triggered when coughing receptors in the pharynx, larynx, trachea, or smaller airways are irritated. The reflex is meant to help clear material from inside the respiratory tract. Pets can cough for many reasons, and our Village Animal Hospital team provides information about five conditions that can cause your pet to cough.

#1: Kennel cough in pets

Kennel cough, also known as canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC), is caused by several bacteria and viruses, including adenovirus type 2, parainfluenza virus, canine coronavirus, and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Details about kennel cough include:

  • Transmission — Kennel cough, which is highly contagious, is spread when your dog inhales airborne droplets from an infected dog or contacts infected objects. Stress, crowded conditions, cold temperatures, and dust or smoke exposure increase your dog’s risk.
  • Signs — Common clinical signs include a loud, honking cough, lethargy, decreased appetite, and eyes and nose discharge.
  • Diagnosis — Kennel cough is typically diagnosed based on signs, but if complications occur, nasal swabs can identify the causative pathogen. In addition, X-rays may be necessary to assess your pet’s lungs.
  • Treatment — Most cases resolve without treatment, but antibiotics or cough medications may be prescribed in severe cases.
  • Prevention — A vaccine is available to protect your pet against B. bronchiseptica, the most common pathogen that causes kennel cough. Dogs who frequently interact with other dogs outside should be vaccinated every six months.

#2: Asthma in pets

Asthma commonly causes coughing in cats and is thought to result from an allergic reaction to inhaled allergens, which triggers an immune response, including irritation, swelling, and constriction, in the airways. Details about feline asthma include:

  • Signs — Most affected cats are diagnosed between 4 and 5 years of age, and exhibit signs including difficulty breathing, wheezing, increased respiratory rate, coughing, open-mouthed breathing, and vomiting that can range from mild to severe. During an asthma attack, the cat typically keeps their body hunched close to the ground and extends their neck to help facilitate breathing.
  • Diagnosis — Diagnostic tools that help diagnose feline asthma include blood work, allergy testing, microscopic evaluation of the cat’s airway secretions, X-rays, and bronchoscopy to view the cat’s airways.
  • Treatment — Feline asthma is typically treated with a combination of anti-inflammatory medications and bronchodilators.
  • Prevention — To help prevent attacks, avoid smoking around your cat, don’t use perfume or cologne, use unscented, low-dust cat litter, and keep your cat in a well-ventilated area.

#3: Tracheal collapse in pets

Tracheal collapse is most commonly seen in toy-breed dogs, such as Yorkshire terriers, Pomeranians, and toy poodles, but cats can be affected, as well. The condition is a chronic, progressive disease that weakens and flattens the C-shaped cartilage rings of the trachea, severely compromising the pet’s airflow. Details about tracheal collapse include:

  • Signs — Most pets are diagnosed after 4 years of age, with signs that include a harsh, dry cough, difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing when picked up or they strain against their collar, and coughing when excited.
  • Diagnosis — The tracheal collapse isn’t always visible on a regular X-ray, and special imaging, called a fluoroscopy, may be needed for a diagnosis. Endoscopy to view the inside of the trachea can also provide helpful information.
  • Treatment — For pets who have mild collapse, medical management, including weight loss, anti-inflammatories and medications to reduce airway spasms, and sedation to reduce coughing and anxiety, can be employed. In more severe cases, surgical correction is needed.
  • Prevention — To help prevent episodes, keep your pet at a healthy weight, prevent over-excitement, and use a harness rather than a collar when walking your pet.

#4: Heartworms in pets

Heartworms are dangerous parasites that can significantly damage your pet’s heart and lungs. Details about heartworms in pets include:

  • Transmission — Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes that ingest the baby parasites when they take a blood meal from an infected canid. They then can pass on the infection after the parasite matures to an infective stage.
  • Signs — Many pets don’t show signs in the early stages, and signs differ in dogs and cats. Signs in dogs include a soft cough, lethargy, and weight loss. Signs in cats are similar to feline asthma signs, and include difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, open-mouthed breathing, and vomiting.
  • Diagnosis — Blood tests can detect antigens from the adult female heartworms and antibodies produced in response to the parasites’ presence. X-rays and ultrasound may also be necessary.
  • Treatment — Treatment for dogs involves administering medication over several months to kill the parasite at every life stage. This process must be monitored carefully to prevent complications from the worm die-off. No treatment is available for cats, and supportive therapy is used to manage these cases.
  • Prevention — All pets, including those who live only indoors, should receive year-round heartworm prevention medication.

#5: Heart disease in pets

Heart valve or heart muscle disease is one of the most common reasons why a dog coughs. Details about heart disease in pets include:

  • Signs — Common signs in dogs include coughing, difficulty breathing, decreased appetite, and exercise intolerance.
  • Diagnosis — Tools used to diagnose heart disease include auscultation, chest X-rays, electrocardiogram, and ultrasound.
  • Treatment — Treatment typically involves medications to help the heart work, correct irregular heartbeats, and slow fluid buildup on the lungs

Numerous conditions can cause your pet to cough, with some more serious than others. If your pet has a concerning cough, contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Village Animal Hospital, so we can determine the cause of the irritation and devise an appropriate treatment plan.