Dog Coughing: When To Be Concerned If Your Dog Is Coughing · The Wildest

Skip to main content

Why Is My Dog Coughing?

Seven reasons to be concerned when your dog is coughing.

by Colleen Stinchcombe and Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM
Updated December 10, 2023
Dog laying down in dog bed and coughing
Guaita Studio / Stocksy

Coughing — though one of your least favorite sounds as a dog parent — is a common symptom in dogs, but it’s important to know when to be concerned. Possible reasons for coughing in dogs include respiratory infections, pneumonia, allergies, and many more. If your dog’s cough is persistent or accompanied by other symptoms, such as lethargy, loss of appetite, or fever, it’s important to seek veterinary care. Other concerning signs include coughing up blood, mucus, or foam, or if your dog’s cough worsens at night or when they’re resting.

Common reasons for coughing in dogs

Dogs cough to expel material from their airways. A true cough starts with a deep inspiration, hard push with the vocal cords closed, then continued pushing with the vocal cords open. This combination of actions allows the lungs to build up enough pressure to push mucus, foreign material, or fluid from the airways. There are many causes for dog coughing, including:

1. Respiratory infections

“Some dogs will cough after routine things, like drinking water [or inhaling treats] too quickly,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, a veterinarian at Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital. But if you can’t attribute your dog’s cough to an activity, if they’re coughing more than once or twice a day, or if they’re “coughing up yellow or greenish mucus or blood, you need to see a vet soon.”

Like humans, pets can catch respiratory infections pretty easily, especially if they’re playing with other pets at dog parks, doggie daycare, or other crowded areas. Infections are spread through respiratory droplets that are kind of hard to avoid when wrestling and sharing toys or water bowls. If you work with dogs, you could even carry a virus or bacteria home on your clothes.

If your dog is coughing up phlegm, it could be a sign of a respiratory infection. Respiratory infections are so typical among kenneled pets, it’s how “kennel cough” was coined. This syndrome can actually comprise a mixed bag of viruses or bacteria, including:

  • Bordetella bacteria

  • Adenovirus type-2

  • Parainfluenza

  • Canine coronavirus (don’t freak out; it’s not the one you’re worried about)

Kennel cough affects a dog’s windpipe (trachea) and bronchial tubes, leading to a hacking, honking, or retching cough that may sound as though they’re choking or trying to cough something up. You’ll know it when you hear it.

The Bordetella bacteria can also lay dormant in a dog until conditions are ripe, with symptoms suddenly appearing after exposure to smoke, travel-induced stress, or cold temperatures. A vaccine can help prevent kennel cough if your pet hangs out with other dogs on the regular. While the infection is highly contagious, thankfully most infections clear on their own without issues. Dogs with complications like fever, loss of appetite, or pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics.

2. Pneumonia

A dog coughing up mucus could also be a sign of pneumonia. Dogs with compromised immune systems are more at risk of an upper respiratory infection snowballing into pneumonia, but we don’t recommend waiting until the 11th hour for that to happen. By the time a dog’s cough is accompanied by fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, difficulty breathing, or green or bloody mucus from their nose, they’ll probably need to be hospitalized because their lungs are full of fluid or pus. Eww is right, so see a vet at the first signs of an infection.

Pneumonia isn’t always caused by Bordetella; other bacteria or viruses can invade the respiratory tract. Other conditions like pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs triggered by inhaled irritants) and pulmonary contusions (due to trauma from a chest injury) can look similar to pneumonia. It often takes a lot more to treat pneumonia than antibiotics; we’re talking bronchodilators, nebulizers, feeding tubes, supplemental oxygen…you get the picture.

3. Allergies

All that pollen in the air? It gets to your dog, too. Allergies are one of the most common medical concerns in dogs, though most will struggle with itching and scratching more than upper respiratory symptoms. Still, allergens can sometimes affect your pet’s airways and lead to coughing, sneezing, wheezing, panting, and discharge from their eyes and nose. Not the cutest look.

There’s not much you can do to prevent respiratory reactions to allergens, but you can discuss treatment with antihistamines or corticosteroids with your vet in serious cases. But don’t ignore your dog’s symptoms, as that can lead to bronchitis and sinusitis.

4. Heartworms

Although a cough might immediately make you zero in on the lungs or throat, it can also be a warning flag from another part of the body: the heart. Heartworm disease is exactly what it sounds like: Worms infest a dog’s heart and the vessels leading to the lungs, blocking their arteries, and damaging the organs in the process. Heartworms are spread via mosquito bites, where tiny larvae are transferred to the dog’s bloodstream and eventually grow into adult worms within their heart, releasing even more larvae.

“All it takes is one infected mosquito to cause heartworm disease,” Dr. Rossman says. “Once a year, all dogs should be tested.” And every six months, if you live in the South — specifically the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts where heartworm is most common — or recently adopted a dog from the South or Puerto Rico. She also recommends that every dog take preventative medication for heartworms.

Dogs can be treated for heartworm disease, but it isn’t pleasant. “You basically have to [inject them with] poison to kill the worms, so it’s really nasty,” Dr. Rossman adds. The aggressive protocol has side effects, but not treating heartworm is not an option because it can be fatal. Giving your dog a preventative treat once a month is pretty doable, right?

5. Congestive heart failure

Unfortunately, not all heart problems are preventable. Genetic heart defects can develop as a dog ages, leading to congestive heart failure. Classic signs for congestive heart failure include tiring easily, pacing restlessly, and breathing rapidly — especially after exercise or when trying to sleep. Coughing is usually only seen in cases of severe congestive heart failure. Less common but more advanced symptoms include fainting, weight loss, a swollen belly, and a change in your dog’s tongue or gum color owing to poor oxygen flow.

Depending on your dog’s heart condition, your vet may prescribe medication that can correct irregular heartbeats, slow fluid build-up in the lungs, or help increase blood flow (don’t be confused if they prescribe Viagra!). Some dogs are even candidates for surgery to install a pacemaker. In general, keeping your dog at a healthy weight and activity level can ease the strain on their heart.

6. Tracheal collapse

The symptoms of tracheal collapse can resemble those of kennel cough, but usually sound a little different and aren’t accompanied by gagging or retching. Dr. Ochoa notes it’s a common reason for coughs in small dogs, such as Pomeranians, Yorkies, Toy Poodles, Chihuahuas, and Pugs. “They will have a classic goose-honk cough,” episodes of which can sound pretty intense and typically follow exercise, excitement, or excessively high temperatures.

“Depending on the severity, there are many different ways it can be treated,” Dr. Ochoa says. “For mild cases, most dogs just take cough medication when they need it. In very severe cases, dogs will need surgery — usually a stent is placed in or around the trachea to keep it from collapsing.”

7. Cancer

Not to sound like a scary medical article in which all roads lead back to cancer, but yeah, coughing can be a sign of lung cancer in dogs. The good news is it’s quite rare, though certain breeds seem to be more prone to it than others, including Boxers, Doberman Pinschers, Australian Shepherds, Irish Setters, and Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Lung cancer in animals may be linked to the inhalation of cigarette smoke, so avoid exposing your dog to secondhand smoke. Cancers in the lungs can start there (primary tumors) or can spread from other organs (metastatic tumors). About one-third of dogs are not symptomatic and tumors are often discovered incidentally by chest X-rays (then confirmed via biopsy or other methods). Depending on the diagnosis, a veterinary oncologist may recommend surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.

8. Chronic bronchitis

A chronic cough is a consistent finding in dogs with chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis causes increased mucus secretion and thickening of the walls of the airways within the lungs. It can be triggered by inhaled particles (such as smoke or allergens) and may have a genetic component. Many small-breed dogs like Yorkies, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and Toy Poodles are among the most commonly affected. Dogs of any age can have chronic bronchitis, though it does seem to get more common and severe with age.

Chronic bronchitis can lead to changes in the lungs that get worse with time. Some of the normal self-cleaning functions of the lungs become impaired, leading to infections. The airways can weaken and begin to collapse with time, leading to difficulty breathing and dogs needing to put a lot of extra effort into exhaling fully. Chronic bronchitis isn’t curable, but it can be controlled with bronchodilators, steroids (often given by an inhaler, like human asthma medications), and maintenance of an appropriate body weight.

What should I do if my dog is coughing?

It’s always hard to know how concerned to be when your dog is coughing. The level of worry about a dog’s coughing will often depend on the context. If your dog has a coughing fit after drinking a bunch of water but is acting fine otherwise, it’s generally not a cause for concern. If you notice chronic, severe, or unexplained coughing, have your dog checked out by your veterinarian. Whether acute or persistent, dog coughing symptoms should raise red flags if accompanied by other signs like:

  • Lethargy

  • Weakness

  • Fever

  • Discharge from the eyes or nose

  • Loss of appetite

  • Production of blood or phlegm during episodes

  • Rapid or labored breathing

  • Pale or bluish gums

  • Rattling or wheezing sounds when breathing

Consider any uptick in coughing a problem if your dog has a history of laryngeal paralysis (even after surgery), chronic bronchitis, recent trauma, recent surgery, or a heart murmur. Always contact your vet if your dog’s cough concerns you or if your dog isn’t acting normally.

What if my dog’s cough is mild?

An acute, mild cough once or twice a day that isn’t bothering your dog or interfering with their normal doggy business isn’t a reason to rush to the vet. Talk to your vet’s office or set up an appointment if that cough stays persistent, changes in sound or character, or becomes more frequent. It’s always better to get things checked out early to make sure that a minor problem doesn’t become a major one.

How do vets treat coughing in dogs?

A full history is important to figuring out the cause of a cough. Your vet will want to know how long it’s been going on, what it sounds like, and what other symptoms the cough is accompanied by. Dogs don’t always want to cough for the vet, so it’s helpful if you can record a coughing episode so your vet can see and hear the same thing you are.

After examining your dog and listening to their lungs, your vet may want to take chest radiographs to see if there’s evidence of pneumonia, bronchitis, cancer, or other issues within the lungs. The type of treatment will depend on the sound of the cough, presence of different lung sounds, presence of a fever, and changes seen on radiographs.

What medication is available for coughing in dogs?

There’s no cure-all dog coughing medicine that covers every cause of cough. The type of medication or therapy used for a cough is determined by its cause. Some common types of medications used include:

  • Cough suppressants: Some coughs just need time to resolve, and cough suppressants can help keep them comfortable during that time. Some causes for coughing (such as pneumonia) can be worsened by getting rid of the cough reflex, so your vet will prescribe these only when it’s safe. Don’t use over-the-counter cough medications unless specifically advised by your vet — some contain ingredients that are very dangerous for dogs.

  • Corticosteroids: These drugs help reduce inflammation but do so by suppressing the immune system. If needed chronically, switching to an inhaled steroid can reduce side effects and focus treatment on the airways only. Steroids can be great fortracheal collapse or chronic bronchitis, when there’s unwanted inflammation but can be dangerous when there’s the possibility of an infection.

  • Bronchodilators: Bronchodilators help open the airways of dogs with conditions where the airway muscles spasm. They are most commonly used for dogs who have chronic bronchitis but are sometimes tried with other conditions.

  • Heart medications: In congestive heart failure, vets frequently use a combination of drugs to clear fluid out of the lungs, make the heart pump more efficiently, and reduce load on the heart. These medications are usually needed for life due to the progressive nature of heart disease.

What are the steps involved in follow-up care and the recovery process for dogs after treatment?

Your vet may recommend some steps to help protect your dog as they recover from a cough. Vets will often advise avoiding excitement and restricting in the short-term to reduce the load on the lungs. Dogs with contagious coughs (such as kennel cough) should be kept isolated from other dogs for at least two weeks after recovery to prevent spread of the disease.

Preventive care for a dog‘s cough is limited. Keeping up with routine veterinary care is key to recognizing problems including heart disease, tracheal collapse, and bronchitis before they begin causing serious issues. Vaccination and monthly preventatives help reduce the likelihood of contagious problems, such as kennel cough and heartworm disease. When out in public, keep your dog away from other dogs who are coughing or look sick. 

FAQs (People also ask):

Are there specific breeds more prone to coughing issues?

Small and toy breed dogs are more likely to develop tracheal collapse and chronic bronchitis. These diseases are common causes of coughing in dogs as they age.

Should I be concerned if my dog coughs after exercising or drinking water?

Coughing after exercising could be a sign of a problem in your dog’s lungs or airways. Coughing after drinking water may be normal if it only happens occasionally, but dogs with laryngeal paralysis will often cough after drinking water.

Can I try home remedies before seeking veterinary attention?

There are no great home remedies for coughing. Seeing your veterinarian is the best way to make sure that your dog’s cough doesn’t turn into a major problem. Never give medications (especially human medications) unless advised to do so by your vet. 


Colleen Stinchcombe

Colleen Stinchcombe lives near Seattle, WA, where she works as a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her two rescue pups wish she were a professional ball-thrower.

Dr. Bartley Harrison holding his dog

Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM

Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM is a small animal veterinarian based in North Carolina who has practiced emergency medicine since graduating from the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. His primary interest areas include pain management, cardiology, and the treatment of shock.

He is a member of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, American Veterinary Medical Association, and American Medical Writers Association. In addition to his clinical work, he writes pet health articles to help provide accurate information for both new and experienced pet parents. When he’s not working, he enjoys cooking, traveling, reading, and going on adventures with his dog.

Related articles