By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 21 November 2011)
There are many different causes of coughing in pets. Cats and dogs may simply drink too fast and choke on their water.
Pets may also suffer tracheal injuries due to tight collars or owners yanking on their leashes. For this reason, harnesses are a better choice than collars when taking a pet for a walk.
Additional causes of coughing in pets include inhalation of dust, pollen, or other objects; breed characteristics; lung lobe torsion; allergies; hairballs; and various illnesses.
Inhaled Foreign Bodies
Coughing, vomiting, or gagging when a pet has been playing outdoors in weeds or grass suggests inhalation of foreign bodies such as pollen or seeds. A pet may also accidentally inhale food particles or medicines.
Even if the choking or coughing fit is brief and the animal shows no other symptoms directly afterward, it’s still important to keep an eye on the situation. Inhalation of foreign material can trigger serious medical conditions such as aspiration pneumonia, which take some time to develop. Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia include:
- Coughing up phlegm
- Loss of appetite
- Loud breathing
- Moist cough
- Rapid breathing
- Runny nose
- Weight loss
Treatment varies depending on the severity of the pneumonia. In serious cases, hospitalization is required during which a pet may be provided with intravenous fluids and oxygen. Pets that are not as sick and are eating well and sufficiently hydrated can be treated as outpatients. Treatments may include:
- Nebulization and coupage therapies (a combination of moist air and light chest strikes with cupped hand designed to loosen mucus and facilitate breathing)
- Antibiotics if the pneumonia is bacterial
- Steroids if the pneumonia is non-infectious
- Bronchoscopy or surgery to remove the foreign body
A variety of conditions can put animals at increased risk for inhaling food or medications and suffering aspiration pneumonia, including disorders of the mouth and throat, cleft palate, conditions affecting the larynx or esophagus, and neural dysfunction.
Elongated Soft Pallet
Flat-faced breeds such as Persian cats, Bulldogs, Lhasa Apsos, Shih-Tzus, Pekinese, and Pugs may suffer coughing spasms and breathing difficulties in hot weather or when excited due to their elongated soft pallets. Symptoms may not appear until a pet is full grown, and the problem can be corrected with minor surgery.
Lung Lobe Torsion
With lung lobe torsion, a lung lobe becomes twisted, causing fluid accumulation and breathing difficulties. Deep-chested dog breeds are most susceptible, but all breeds can be affected. The condition is rare in cats, though there are cases from time to time. Lung lobe torsion is treated with surgery, and assuming there are no other illnesses, prognosis is usually good.
Allergic reactions or irritation caused by inhaled fumes or particles can trigger coughing fits. Allergic reaction should be suspected if the coughing problem tends to be seasonal (i.e., coughing worsens during pollen season) or triggered by exposure to common irritants such as:
- Certain fabrics
- Cleaning products
- Feather pillows
- Flea powders
Even if allergies are suspected, consulting a veterinarian is recommended to rule out more serious illnesses. Treatment may include use of a bronchodilator, antihistamines, cough suppressants, and environmental changes to reduce the level of allergens.
Hairballs are by far the most common cause of coughing and retching in cats, particularly those with long hair. When hairballs are the problem, the cat will usually vomit up tight mats of fur. See Preventing Hairballs for more information and home remedies.
Do dogs get hairballs? This is a common question on pet forums, and anecdotal evidence suggests that some dogs do, though the problem is far more common in cats because they groom themselves more intensely.
The following symptoms suggest that a pet’s cough may be triggered by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection:
- Coughing up pus or phlegm
- Difficulty breathing (may indicate pneumonia or asthma)
- Dry, hacking cough (possibly a respiratory tract infection such as kennel cough)
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid, shallow breathing (associated with pneumonia)
- Runny nose/sneezing (often symptoms of viral infection)
- Swallowing frequently, gagging, licking lips, and in some cases, foaming at the mouth (possibly a sore throat or tonsillitis)
- Watering or otherwise irritated eyes
- Weight loss
Infectious disease should be suspected if a pet has spent time at a cattery, boarding kennel, grooming salon, dog park, animal shelter, or anywhere else he might have come into contact with other animals recently. Fungal infections are also common in animals that spend time in mouldy environments such as dank basements or places where there are bird droppings.
Treatment varies depending on the type of infection. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics and fungal infections with antifungals. In the case of viral infections, veterniarians usually treat the symptoms until the illness has run its course.
Elderly pets and certain breeds are susceptible to heart disease. The following symptoms indicate that a pet’s cough may be caused by heart disease, though many of these symptoms are also associated with infections:
- Cough worse at night or when the animal is lying down
- Lack of appetite
- Moist, phlegmy cough
- Noisy, open-mouthed breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
Treatments may include medications, dietary changes, or surgery, depending on the illness. Prognosis varies depending on the type of heart condition and how advanced it is.
The following symptoms are associated with lung or tracheal cancer in pets, though many of these symptoms can indicate other diseases as well:
- Breathing difficulties
- Coughing up blood
- Loss of appetite
- Persistent cough
- Weight loss
Treatments may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or just making the pet as comfortable as possible if he has reached an age where it would be cruel to put him through treatment for a brief extension of life.
The following symptoms suggest that a pet might be suffering from asthma:
- Abnormal posture (sitting with head extended)
- Breathing difficulties/wheezing
- Cough that gets worse when the pet is active
- Noisy breathing
- Rapid breathing
Treatment may include use of a bronchodilator, antihistamines, cough suppressants, and environmental changes to reduce the level of allergens.
Parasites such as heartworms, lungworms, and intestinal worms are a common cause of coughing in cats and dogs, particularly those that roam outdoors. Symptoms of parasite infestation may include some or all of the following:
- Bulging stomach
- Loss of appetite or increased appetite
- Severe coughing spasms
- Weight loss
Parasites can be treated with deworming medications. If the infection is not left for too long, most pets make a full recovery.
Tracheal collapse, which is far less common in cats than dogs, can produce the following symptoms:
- “Goose honk” cough
- Cough triggered by drinking water or eating
- Cough worsening when the pet lies down
Small dog breeds are particularly susceptible to tracheal collapse, especially if they are overweight. Treatment may include medications, switching from a collar to a harness, dietary changes, eliminating environmental pollutants such as second-hand smoke, and stress reduction. In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary.
Laryngeal paralysis is a relatively rare condition that usually afflicts larger dog breeds, but sometimes smaller dogs and cats as well. Symptoms include:
- Tiring easily
- Roaring sounds when inhaling
- Inability to meow or bark
- Fainting spells
Treatment of may include reducing exercise and heat exposure, administering cough medicines and/or corticosteroids, and surgery in severe cases.
Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPDs are diseases such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic asthma that obstruct airways. Among humans, COPDs are usually caused by cigarette smoke, and this can trigger lung problems in pets as well, though other environmental pollutants may also cause COPD. Tending to afflict middle-aged and older animals, COPD is characterized by the following symptoms:
- Harsh, dry, hacking cough, possibly accompanied by gagging or retching of foam
- Cough worse at night or when exercising
Treatment may involve the use of corticosteroids, bronchodilators, and cough medicines. In some cases, it may be necessary to rent a small oxygen tank for acute episodes.
This article is not intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation. If your pet is coughing, consult a veterinarian to rule out serious illness and don’t administer medications without a veteriniarian’s approval.
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