Is Your Dog Coughing or Choking?


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When you hear your dog cough, you worry. Is he choking? Just clearing his throat? Does he need help? In dogs, a cough can signal a number of different problems, so educating yourself on the type of cough you’re hearing, as well as your dog’s breed and behavior, will help you decide if there is cause for concern. When in doubt, always visit or call your veterinarian—don’t take chances if your dog is having trouble breathing. But familiarizing yourself with some simple information about the types and causes of coughs in dogs may set your mind at ease when you do hear your dog cough.

Different Coughs Signal Different Conditions

Dogs with canine cough, more commonly known as kennel cough, tend to have a deep, dry, hacking cough. The cough usually gets worse with exertion. If your dog has been boarded recently or has been in some other situation where he has been in contact with large numbers of dogs, he may have picked up this highly contagious viral or bacterial infection.

Sometimes dogs have sort of a high-pitched gagging cough. If the dog is also making swallowing motions and licking his lips, your veterinarian may diagnose a sore throat or, rarely, tonsillitis. This type of cough can also suggest that something is stuck in the throat.

The California Veterinary Medical Association warns that a “wet” cough, one in which you can hear the fluid or phlegm moving, may mean that fluid has built up in the dog’s lungs. This can be due to a respiratory infection or, worse, pneumonia. Symptoms will usually include not only coughing but also fever and epistaxis, which is bleeding from the nose. Dogs most at risk for respiratory infections and pneumonia are either very old or very young or those with a weak immune system. Dogs can also develop pneumonia if they accidentally inhale a foreign body or liquid, referred to as aspiration. In older dogs, this is particularly dangerous, as older dogs can develop problems swallowing, which increases their chances of aspirating water as they drink.

The American College of Veterinary Surgeons describes another condition found in many toy breeds: tracheal collapse. It’s a chronic, progressive disease of the trachea, or windpipe. The trachea is a flexible tube and, similar to a vacuum cleaner hose, it has small rings of cartilage that help keep the airway open when the dog is breathing, moving or coughing. In certain dogs, the rings of cartilage are either not formed correctly at birth, or they weaken and begin to change from a C-shape to more of a U-shape. As the dorsal membrane stretches, the cartilage rings get progressively flatter until eventually the trachea just collapses, leaving the dog trying to pull air through what is essentially a closed straw. Sometimes when you pick up a toy dog with tracheal collapse or if he’s pulling against his leash, his cough will sound like a goose honking.

Other dogs cough mainly at night when they’re lying down—this could be a sign of heart disease, which is prevalent in certain breeds, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The Drake Center of Veterinary Care in Encinitas, California, also lists Great Danes, Laboradors, Boxers, Dalmatians, Dobermans and other spaniels as the breeds most prone to heart disease. As dogs of these breeds get older, the coughing often signals that the disease is progressing.

What to Do

If your dog is coughing frequently or violently, get him to your veterinarian sooner rather than later. Don’t assume it’s nothing to worry about. While most problems are treatable or manageable, especially if caught early, you don’t want to ignore a persistent cough.

If it’s kennel cough, your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics, and will advise you to keep your dog isolated so he doesn’t infect other dogs. If you’ve ever had a bad cough, you know how painful it can be. Help soothe your dog’s cough by running a humidifier or bringing him into the bathroom with you while you’re taking a shower.

If your dog has been playing in an area with tall grass and suddenly begins coughing, check to see if he has any small foreign objects lodged in the throat such as a grass seed. If he doesn’t cough up whatever it is, its presence can cause a bacterial infection and eventually pneumonia. Before it gets to that point, have your veterinarian examine your dog and remove the object if possible.

If Your Dog is Really Choking

If you believe your dog truly is choking, the Veterinary Information Network offers these recommendations for at-home emergency care:

If Your Pet is Unconscious:

Perform a finger sweep. Open your pet’s mouth and place your finger along the inside of the mouth, sliding it down toward the center of the throat over the base of the tongue, gently sweeping toward the center to remove any foreign material. Note: If you touch something that feels like a smooth bone deep in the throat, there’s no need to be alarmed—this is Adam’s Apple.

Begin rescue breathing (CPR) by placing your mouth over your dog’s nose with his mouth closed. Breathe into the dog’s nose until you see the chest rise. If air is not entering the lungs, slap the chest wall firmly or perform the dog Heimlich maneuver by putting your pet on his back, placing your hands over the abdomen near the bottom of the rib cage and gently, but firmly, thrusting toward the spine. Perform a finger sweep and begin rescue breathing again. Repeat until the foreign object is out and the lungs can be inflated. Then get your dog to the veterinarian immediately.

If Your Pet is Conscious:

Stay calm and try to keep your dog calm. If your dog is overheated, you can lower your pet’s temperature with cool water applied to the ears, feet and belly, and then head to your veterinarian’s office. Only perform a finger sweep if this doesn’t upset your dog; otherwise, he might bite you in his panic.

Be aware that difficulty breathing, medically known as dyspnea, is a medical emergency. Your dog may be making increased efforts to breathe and it may sound noisy or squeaky. A bluish shade to the lips or an inability to inhale or exhale are signs of severe distress and you should get your pet to the veterinarian immediately.

Always Play it Safe

Many times, pet owners do confuse coughing with choking. Both look similar, but with choking, your dog will have trouble inhaling. If it’s just coughing, your dog will inhale almost normally. It’s important to distinguish between the two, because trying to give first aid to a dog that is simply coughing is dangerous. But always seek medical advice from your veterinarian if you’re not 100 percent sure, just to be on the safe side.

VCA Desert Animal Hospital located at 4299 E. Ramon Road, Palm Springs, CA 92264. Visit 760-656-6222


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