From a runny nose to feeling run down, dogs go through the same symptoms as us humans when they have their own type of a cold. But what causes them? And is there a vaccine?
Learn how best to tell when your dog has a cold and what you as its owner can do about it to help your pet.
Do dogs get colds?
We humans are familiar with colds and the flu doing the rounds in our human social circles, and people often wonder if their pets are at risk. The expression “cold”, as used in humans, generally means the “common cold”, which is an upper respiratory infection that can be caused by one of two hundred or so different viruses. Human adults typically get two to three colds per year, and children may have up to 12 per year. Dogs can, indeed, catch a “dog cold”, in the sense that they can pick up upper respiratory infections from other dogs.
The term “dog cold” is not usually used. You are more likely to hear vets talking about “upper respiratory infection”.
What are the signs that a dog has a cold?
A bit like human colds, the signs of illness can include a runny nose, a cough, and generally feeling run down. Affected dogs will still be eating, and still be reasonably active, mostly behaving normally. But carers will be aware that their pets are not quite their normal selves.
What causes “dog colds” or “upper respiratory infections”?
There are many possible dog-only causative agents, including Canine Adeno Virus-2, Canine Herpes Virus, respiratory coronavirus (not the current one, Covid-19) and parainfluenza. Dogs can also pick up a specific bacterial upper respiratory infection, caused by Bordetella Bronchiseptica, which is commonly known as Kennel Cough.
How do dogs catch “dog colds”?
Upper respiratory infections in dogs can be highly contagious i.e. dogs are likely to pick them up from other dogs that already have the infection. Most spread by droplets i.e. when a dog coughs, the air around them is filled with tiny droplets from their airways, with many infectious agents in the droplets. If your dog inhales these droplets, or if they sniff the infected dog, or if they sniff an area that the infected dog has had contact with, they may pick up the respiratory infection.
If your dog is at risk of contact with an infected dog, e.g. if they visit dog parks, if they meet other dogs out on walks, or if they are in multiple-dog areas like boarding kennels, grooming parlours, training classes or doggy day care, then they are more likely to be at risk of picking up an upper respiratory infection.
Is there a vaccine against dog colds?
There is no vaccine for most of the mild upper respiratory viruses, apart from parainfluenza virus – this is often included in the routine booster vaccination, but its efficacy is variable because of the multiple strains of this virus. Nonetheless, vaccinated dogs have a reduced incidence of parainfluenza compared to unvaccinated dogs, so you should discuss this with a vet.
There are several effective vaccines against Bordetella Bronchiseptica (Kennel Cough), and if your pet socialises regularly with other dogs, this should be given annually. Again, discuss this with a veterinarian.
Can dogs catch human colds?
Many different viruses (including rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, coronaviruses and human metapneumoviruses) cause the common cold in humans, but rhinoviruses (of which there are more than 100 strains) are the most frequent. Dogs cannot pick up these viral infections from humans.
However viruses can mutate over time, so it is difficult to make absolute, “forever”, rules about them, which is why it makes sense to take hygienic precautions around your pets if you have any sort of illness.
Can dogs and humans get the same virus?
Most viral infections are species-specific. There are a very small number of viruses that can routinely cross the species barrier between humans and animals, passing from humans to pets and vice versa. These include the following:
Rabies. The rabies virus can be spread between many species, including dogs, cats and humans. Fortunately, vaccines – of pets and wildlife – have controlled this terrible disease effectively and it is rarely seen in Europe and North America. Rabies is still a serious problem in some parts of the world, including Africa and Asia.
Influenza. One fatal human-to-cat transmission of the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus occurred in 2009 in the USA. The pet owner was severely ill with the flu and, while she was in hospital, her cat died of pneumonia caused by H1N1 infection. Since then, cats, dogs and even ferrets have been identified with pandemic H1N1 infection that seems to originate from humans. Blood testing studies, measuring antibodies to the virus, indicate that exposure to human flu viruses, with a subsequent immune response, does take place in pets.
Mumps. Mumps is a human disease caused by a paramyxovirus, causing fever and headache followed by painful swelling of the salivary glands in the neck, with potentially serious complications. Rarely, dogs can become infected, showing similar signs to humans. Thankfully, due to the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination programme, mumps is now rare.
There is a long list of human viruses that dogs cannot pick up from humans and, equally, a long list of dog viruses that humans cannot pick up from dogs. The diseases above are the exception rather than the rule.
Should I protect my dog from myself if I have a cold?
It’s very unlikely that you will pass any infection on to your dog, but to be absolutely safe, it makes sense to take hygienic precautions when you are sick yourself. If you are unwell, you should avoid interacting with your pet in any way that is not necessary (no close petting, hugging or snuggling), you should wash your hands before and after handling or feeding your pet, and you should maintain more social distance between you and your pet compared to normal.
How do you know if your dog has a cold?
A dog with a “cold” (or "upper respiratory infection”) will have signs that may include a runny nose, a cough, perhaps a sneeze and reddish eyes. They may have a sore throat and may seem quieter than normal, but they will be eating and they will respond to you in their normal way, for the most part.
What human medicine can I give my dog for a cold?
It’s never safe to give human medicine to a pet without the explicit advice from a vet. Too many dogs have suffered serious illness or even death from owners mistakenly assuming that human drugs can be given safely to animals. If your dog has signs of a cold (mild upper respiratory infection), you should give them general supportive care, but there is no need to give medication yourself. If you are sufficiently concerned about them that you feel they need medication, then you need to take them to the vet.
What sort of supportive care should I give a dog with a cold?
As a pet parent, you naturally want to do everything you can to keep your dog comfortable when they are unwell in any way.
Nutrition. Make sure that they are eating high-quality food that they enjoy. Feed small amounts twice daily: a good appetite is a key sign of good health, and if your dog stops eating, then you should take them to the vet without delay.
Dietary supplements. If your pet is fed a good quality complete diet, there is no need to give added vitamins, minerals or oils.
Water. Make sure that your dog’s water bowl is cleaned and changed twice daily. It’s important that they stay well hydrated when they are not in the fullness of health.
Exercise. Any dog with a cold (upper respiratory infection) should be rested, just going out to do their business three or four times daily, on a leash. Strenuous exercise (running and panting) stresses the respiratory system, and this should be avoided when there’s an infection affecting the area.
Rest. Like sick humans, dogs need to rest as much as possible when they are under the weather for any reason. Make sure they have a warm, comfortable bed where they can be left in peace.
Nursing. Twice daily, spend a few minutes with your dog, cleaning away any discharges (e.g. around the eyes and nose) and making sure that they are comfortable in every way. Speak soft, comforting words to them: dogs understand and appreciate your body language, even if they don’t understand every word you’re saying.
How do I rehydrate my dog?
A dog with a cold is unlikely to become severely dehydrated, as they are not actively losing fluid in the same way as they do with conditions like gastroenteritis (when fluid is lost via vomiting and diarrhoea). You should make sure that a fresh bowl of water is always within easy reach, and you can encourage them to lap, but you do not need to forcibly get them to swallow fluids.
When to contact a veterinarian
If your pet stops eating, if they become dull and dejected so that they do not want to get up and walk around, if they cough more often than a couple of times an hour, if there is more than just a trace of discharge from the nose or eyes, or if for any other reason you are worried about your dog, then you should take them to be seen by a veterinarian.