Why do dogs cough?

A black lab looking off camera

Like humans, dogs cough to remove foreign objects, mucus, or debris from their airways. Your dog may cough for a few seconds to clear their throat, then proceed with life as usual. Your dog may also start hacking and gagging when they get excited or anxious, then stop on their own–and as strange as this may sound, this is a fairly common phenomenon. Your dog may also cough when they eat or drink too quickly, especially if they’ve been playing hard recently or are just extra food-motivated. Most of the time, coughing is not a cause for concern and resolves on its own. However, if you notice that your dog coughs frequently, can’t seem to stop, or coughs for long periods, they may be feeling sick and need a visit to the vet.

How to describe your dog’s cough

Not all coughs are the same. If you want to help your vet get to the bottom of the issue, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your dog’s cough sound deep and dry?
  • Does your dog’s cough sound high-pitched and gagging?
  • Does your dog’s cough sound wet and moist? Is it productive, aka bringing up mucus from the back of the throat?
  • Does your dog’s cough sound deep and honking, not unlike a goose honk?
  • Is your dog always awake during coughing sessions? Do they ever cough in their sleep?
  • Are there any other symptoms accompanying the cough?

The more information you can give your vet, the easier it can be to diagnose your dog correctly. 

Pay attention to potential triggers. Let your vet know if your dog is more likely to cough outdoors, after exercise, while walking, or lying down.

The different types of coughs

  • Kennel Cough: A highly contagious but treatable disease that spreads quickly between dogs, usually found anywhere that houses multiple dogs (ex. daycares, dog parks, shelters). Kennel cough is frequently accompanied by nasal discharge and gagging/retching.
  • Excitement: As your dog gets more excited, they breathe harder and faster, making coughing or gagging more likely. If they already have a respiratory issue, this can aggravate their condition. If your dog coughs after exertion and has no other symptoms, this is the most likely cause. If you want to reduce coughing fits, train your dog to be calm at home.
  • Tracheal Collapse: A condition where the rings of cartilage on your dog’s trachea weaken or collapse, creating an obstruction in the throat. This usually occurs over a long period of time. Tracheal collapse most commonly occurs in toy-and small-breed dogs.
  • Pneumonia: Some illnesses can cause fluid to enter a dog’s lungs, producing a wet cough. If your dog’s breathing sounds labored, they are having trouble breathing and need to see a vet.
  • Foreign Object: When an object becomes lodged in the back of their throat, your dog starts coughing to remove it. Most times they’ll manage to do so on their own, but in some cases, the object may enter their lungs instead and your dog will need to see a vet.
  • Heart Disease: During congestive heart failure, fluid accumulates in your dog’s lungs, causing them to cough while sleeping or lying down. This is a very serious symptom and requires vet care.

When to take your dog to the vet

The occasional cough is no big deal. And if your dog coughs for a bit then spits something out–problem solved!

But if your dog’s cough seems to come out of nowhere, lasts for a long time, and keeps happening, the vet can make sure it’s not an indicator of anything more serious and prescribe medication to help relieve the symptoms. 

Kennel cough and other forms of canine respiratory illness are highly contagious, so if you have other dogs in the household, don’t forget to pick up meds for them too.

About the Author

A picture of Melody smiling towards the camera
Melody Lee
Contributing Writer

Melody Lee is a contributing writer for Gentle Beast, and is a CPDT-KA dog trainer. She lives in Manhattan with two feral cats, Littlepip and Alphonse, that tolerate her clicker training attempts. One day, her cats might let her adopt a dog of her own.

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