Honking, hacking, loud, soft, or gagging—whatever the noise, a cough is an important reflex that protects your pet’s airways, so hearing a cough from time to time is normal. An investigation is warranted when a cough becomes persistent or recurring. Coughing causes in pets range from easily treatable infections to difficult-to-control chronic diseases. Your Lebanon Animal Hospital team shares the most common reasons for coughing in dogs and cats.

Coughing causes in dogs

Cats and dogs cough because of different conditions. Dogs most often experience the following:

  • Infections — Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites can infect the airways (i.e., bronchitis), lungs (i.e., pneumonia), or both (i.e., bronchopneumonia). Inflammation and increased secretions cause a cough in response to infection. Treatment for infections involves medications directed against the offending organism.
  • Kennel cough — Kennel cough can be viral, bacterial, or both, and is a common cause of contagious cough in dogs. Most cases are mild, and a vaccine is available.
  • Canine influenza — Influenza appeared in the United States in 2015, causing periodic regional outbreaks of serious illness. Influenza causes a cough, fever, and lethargy. Most dogs recover in isolation at home, but some develop pneumonia and require hospitalization. High risk dogs should be vaccinated. 
  • Blastomycosis — Blastomycosis is a serious fungal infection acquired from the environment that typically causes a cough, and can spread to other parts of the body, most commonly the eyes and skin. “Blasto” is life-threatening, and requires months of antifungal medication treatment. 
  • Structural abnormalities These changes typically develop with age, and may be treated with medications or surgery, depending on the individual dog.
  • Collapsing trachea Small dogs are affected by this weakening of cartilage around the windpipe, allowing the airway to collapse in on itself as they breathe. This produces a honking cough, especially during excitement or activity.
  • Laryngeal paralysis — Larger dogs are prone to muscle weakness on one or both sides of their voice box, so air does not pass through the opening normally. This creates noisy breathing, and in severe cases may be life-threatening. 
  • Heart disease — Heart conditions may cause coughing because fluid builds up in the lungs, or because an enlarged heart pushes on the trachea. Heart disease is treatable with medications, but can progress to a life-threatening stage in some dogs.
  • Chronic bronchitis — Chronic bronchitis is diagnosed, typically in older dogs, when all other coughing causes have been ruled out. The dry, hacking cough can be treated with medications to improve quality of life. 

Coughing causes in cats

Cats are unique, with their own list of problems that lead to coughing.

  • Irritants — Cats are sensitive to their environment, so litter dust, air fresheners, smoke, and other irritants frequently cause them to cough. Removing the irritant often resolves the problem.
  • Asthma — Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the small airways that causes coughing and wheezing in cats. Treatment with oral or inhaled medications can usually control the problem long-term. 
  • Infections — Viral respiratory infections are common in cats, and may cause them to cough. Bacteria may also be involved, so antibiotics are sometimes helpful. Parasites or fungi may also occasionally infect the lungs. 

Coughing causes in dogs and cats 

However, dogs and cats do share a few cough-inducing conditions. 

  • Heartworm disease — Mosquitoes can infect pets with heartworm larvae, which then travel to the heart and lungs, where they reside. Heartworms can grow quite large and dogs may harbor hundreds, while cats typically host only one or two. Coughing is an early sign of heartworm disease, which may be deadly in some pets. Treatment for heartworm disease is costly in dogs and non-existent for cats, so the best option for high risk pets is a year-round monthly preventive. 
  • Foreign body — Inhaled objects or plant material can make their way to the small airways or lungs, and cause a cough. Treatment involves object removal with a scoping procedure or surgery.
  • Cancer — Heart or lung cancers often cause coughing. Metastatic cancer, which originates in another body part and spreads to the lungs, may also result in coughing. Treatment options are available for some types of cancers.

How to prevent a cough in your pet

Not all coughing is preventable, but you can take steps to reduce your pet’s risk of certain problems. 

  • Consider the kennel cough and influenza vaccines for your dog if they spend time around other dogs, especially in crowded settings like boarding kennels and daycares. 
  • Keep cats and dogs on a monthly heartworm preventive, to avoid heartworm disease. 
  • Use a low-dust, natural litter, and avoid using harsh chemicals around your cat.

What to do if your pet starts coughing

If your pet develops a cough, keep them away from other pets . If your pet is acting otherwise normally, waiting a few days to see if the problem resolves is OK. Do not use any over-the-counter cough medications unless recommended by your veterinarian. If the cough persists for more than a week, or your pet has a poor appetite, runny nose or eyes, is lethargic, or is showing any other illness signs, call your veterinarian for an appointment. Whether or not your veterinarian is accepting in-person appointments, your pet could be contagious to others, so you should stay in your car, and call to let staff know when you’ve arrived. 

A cough can be a concerning change, but we are here to help. Call us to schedule an appointment with your AAHA-accredited Lebanon Animal Hospital team if your pet develops a cough, or for their regular wellness visit and heartworm disease screening.