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Why dogs cough, hack and gag

Nadine Lober Special to the Daily

What can cause my dog to have a dry, hacking cough?

The most common cause of such symptoms is “kennel cough,” or tracheobronchitis. It is a very contagious respiratory disease and is commonly seen in dogs coming out of shelters or pet stores.

Tracheobronchitis is defined as any contagious respiratory disease that is manifested by coughing and gagging that is not caused by canine distemper virus.



The reason the dog coughs is due to damage of the lining of the respiratory tract due to injury, viral infection or secondary bacterial invasion. Usually, the respiratory system is the only one affected. Younger dogs -anywhere from 6-weeks to 6-months-old – are more commonly affected, but it may develop in dogs of any age. Older dogs often have a pre-existing subclinical airway disease, such as a congenital anomaly or chronic bronchitis.

The symptoms vary from mild to severe depending on the amount of damage to the respiratory tract. The signs can begin about four days after exposure to the infecting agent.



The cough may be dry and hacking, soft and dry or moist and hacking. There might also be non-stop gagging followed by coughing up mucus. Occasionally, the coughing is so strong that the dog might vomit from the abdominal effort. The coughing fits can be initiated by excitement, exercise, changes in temperature or humidity of the inspired air, and pressure on the trachea from a collar, for instance.

How can you diagnose this disease?

During a physical exam of an uncomplicated case of tracheobronchitis you can elicit the cough readily with pressure to the ventral neck area or throat. The lung sounds are usually normal and otherwise the dog is healthy.



In the severe cases, there may be a low-grade fever and there may be some abnormal lung sounds on auscultation, such as crackles or wheezes).

Elimination of other causes for the cough – such as pneumonia, heart disease or other respiratory diseases – should be considered. Bloodwork, therefore, is usually normal, unless a severe infection is present. X-rays are unremarkable with uncomplicated treacheobronchitis, but if severe, then there may be some radiographic changes.

How do you treat this problem?

It is very important to restrict activity, because any exercise will irritate the respiratory tract and cause more coughing. Keep dogs isolated from other dogs due to the contagious nature of the disease.

Infected dogs can transmit the disease before onset of clinical signs and afterward, until immunity develops.

Treatment may take up to 10 or 14 days. Antibiotics are administered and cough suppressants if the cough is severe. The cough suppressants range from simple Robitussen (pediatric) to narcotics, such as tussigon if needed. Uncomplicated cases resolve in 10 to 14 days and severe cases may take two to six weeks.

There is a vaccine called the bordatella vaccine. There is intranasal vaccine and an injectable vaccine.

The intranasal vaccine is the preferred route due to the quicker immunity reached in the respiratory tract. It is usually given every six months.

Many dogs live normal lives without the vaccine and never contract the disease. But if you are to kennel your dog or expose him to many other dogs than the vaccine is advised.

Ultimately, this is a common disease and easily treated. It is more of an inconvenience and is seen in overcrowded animal facilities, such as busy shelters, pet shops and breeding kennels.

It is not contagious to humans, but I would still try to prevent your dog from coughing in your face. It may even be advisable to remove the collar while treating you dog for this problem or getting a harness if you need to keep your dog on a leash for his outings.

Dr. Nadine Lober can be reached at 949-7972


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