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What does it mean if my old dog is coughing?

Old pug dog

Any coughs should be check out by your vet.

© Pixabay

An occasional cough is simply your dog’s way of clearing out his airways. But what happens if you notice old dog coughing becoming excessive? The causes of canine coughing are varied, but thankfully, most aren’t caused by anything serious.

By Dr Holly Graham BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS

Updated on the 24/02/2021, 11:25

A cough can be nothing, or it can be more sinister. Like with humans, an occasional cough isn’t anything to worry about. But what if this cough becomes chronic, regular or excessive? There are many things that can cause a dog to cough, and it’s important to get to the root of the problem
 
If you’ve noticed your elderly dog coughing all day and night, it might need some investigating. Coughing in itself isn’t a disease - but it could be a symptom of one. Let’s take a look through the causes of old dog coughing, and what it might mean for your pooch.

Causes of old dog coughing

Allergies

Allergies don’t affect dogs in the same way as people. Most allergies manifest as skin irritations, runny eyes but sometimes could cause a cough. If your dog has been around dust, or you notice coughing at very particular times of the year allergies could be considered as a cause. Unfortunately allergies aren’t likely to develop in senior pets, and even what you might consider a normal allergy for the time of year should be checked by your vet.

Respiratory diseases

Respiratory disease can affect dogs of any age, but chronic changes to the lung tissue such as fibrosis can occur. There are multiple areas of the respiratory tract that can be affected and result in a cough - from the larynx and trachea, down to the bronchi and alveoli. There are a wide range of problems that might result in a cough, and it’s likely that your vet will want to investigate further to check out what the cause is.

Infections

Infections like kennel cough, can cause a mild and self-limiting cough. This can be picked up from other dogs, kennels or even just the environment. This cough can sound dramatic and worrying, and often happens when they pull on their lead. Kennel cough is caused by a few different bacteria and viruses, and mostly resolves on its own. Unfortunately some kennel cough doesn’t get better and may require antibiotics and or anti-inflammatories. All coughs should be checked out by a vet, not all coughs are benign.

There are other viral, bacterial and in certain climates, fungal infections which your pet could have picked up, too. Sick dogs, or dogs with compromised immune systems may be more prone to contracting these diseases, or struggle to clear infections like a healthy dog. Many infectious respiratory diseases can be vaccinated against, so keep your dog up to date with their preventative healthcare.

Parasites

Parasites like lungworm, can be fatal. These parasites can affect dogs of any age, but are more likely to affect dogs who eat slugs and snails, or drink from muddy puddles. In certain parts of the world, heartworm should be considered as a potential cause of coughing, thankfully this isn’t present in the UK.

Preventative treatment for lungworm and heartworm is available, and all dogs at risk should speak to their vet about the best option. Parasites can be fatal.

Laryngeal paralysis

Commonly seen in older, large breed dogs, laryngeal paralysis is a condition which means dogs can’t properly open the larynx, which covers the entrance to the trachea or the windpipe. This restricts a dog’s airflow, causing a persistent cough and noisy, difficult breathing. It’s not a pleasant condition, but there is hope. Surgery is available to help dogs with the condition, but may not be appropriate in all cases. Any problems with breathing should be investigated as an emergency, as dogs can deteriorate and become very, very sick.

Heart problems

Heart disease is a common finding in elderly animals, with particular breeds being more at risk. Coughing is a non-specific finding of cardiac disease, and occurs when fluid builds up in the lungs and around the heart. Lots of older dogs with heart disease have a soft cough, that may get worse with exercise. These dogs may become exercise intolerant, slow down and owners might notice a change in their breathing. Other symptoms include weight loss, distended abdomens and poor appetite.

Cardiac disease can progress quickly. Whilst many patients can be managed successfully for a time, this should be checked by your vet urgently.

Cancers

Lung tumours aren’t something any owner wants to think about, but coughing can be indicative of lung cancer. Lung cancer is most commonly seen in older dogs, and smoking around your pet may increase their risk of developing these unwanted tumours. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, reduced appetite, weight loss and fatigue, as well as coughing. X-rays or CT scans might be needed to find these nasty tumours, but remember there are many other causes of coughing too.

What to do if your old dog is coughing

All coughs should be checked out by a vet. Even if they’ve been going on for a while. There are many causes of coughing, and unless it’s a one-off episode, consult your vet. A bit of dust up the nose isn’t anything to worry about, but respiratory problems left untreated can get much, much worse. Most coughs probably aren’t anything to panic about, but never get complacent. A mild cough might not get an emergency appointment, but if there’s any signs of deterioration or respiratory distress this must be seen immediately.