My Dog is Coughing

My Dog is Coughing

Q. I took my dog to the local dog park and now he is coughing all night.  What should I do?

A. Over the last year or two, canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC), known in the past as kennel cough, has been at an all-time high. New Hampshire veterinarians have been doing a deep dive to find the cause of this epidemic since they have been hardest hit. So far, no clear cause has been found. In Maine, our dogs have been getting sick wherever dogs gather. Places at highest risk are dog events of all kinds, dog parks, boarding facilities, grooming facilities, and shelters.

There are several bacteria and viruses that can cause CIRDC. Many times, your dog will have more than one organism causing symptoms. They range from bacteria, like Bordetella bronchiseptica, to viruses, like canine influenza virus.  Symptoms typically come on suddenly as a hacking or honking cough. Your dog can also present with a gagging retch with or without spitting up a whitish foam. Not all dogs present with a cough. Some will be sneezing with a runny nose.  These symptoms are worse with exercise and excitement because of the irritation of the airway passages. Dogs are contagious before showing symptoms.

The disease-causing organisms are spread by air droplets from contagious dogs, shared bowls, bedding, toys, your hands, and anything else shared. Some of these organisms are quite hardy; they can live a long time in the environment. All of this makes it difficult to control CIRDC outbreaks.

Symptoms are usually mild and resolve in seven to ten days. Sometimes the symptoms can intensify and the pup can become lethargic, not eat, have rapid and difficult breathing, fever, and a productive cough. These changes indicate that the infection has spread to the lungs causing pneumonia. Normally, the symptoms are mild and your best friend will get over it on its own. Dogs that are very young or old, immune compromised, or have other co-morbidities (other diseases at the same time) are more likely to have trouble fighting these infections. Normally these infections are not contagious to people except for Bordetella bronchiseptica, which is rare and more likely in severely immunocompromised individuals. Most dogs that are generally healthy, behave normally, yet have a cough will get better on their own. Call your veterinarian for help in deciding Fido’s need to be seen or if your dog can be treated at home. Treatment is supportive care including over-the-counter cough medicine, avoiding excitement, exercise, and use of a collar. Using honey to sooth the throat is a nice cough medicine. If your pup doesn’t get better in a week or starts showing more symptoms, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. It will need non steroid anti-inflammatories, fluids to avoid dehydration, and stronger cough medicines. Antibiotics are used when there is secondary bacterial infection or pneumonia.

Your veterinarian will do diagnostic tests to assess your dog’s status. Doing swabs of Fido’s nose, throat, and eyes will help diagnose the cause of his symptoms. More tests may be needed including blood work, radiographs, and collection of discharges to be cultured and the cells examined.

If you find out Fido’s playmate has developed a cough, keep your dog at home. If a cough develops, call other playmate guardians to let them know to keep their pups home. You may need to keep him home for a week.  

Judith K. Herman, DVM, CVH
Animal Wellness Center
Augusta, Maine
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