Chronic coughing and breathing difficulties can be one of the most difficult symptoms for your veterinarian to diagnose. There is a wide array of possibilities for the origin of a cough in a dog or cat. Something as simple as drinking water too fast can cause a fit of coughing, but when an animal coughs throughout the day or periodically for days in a row it’s time to start looking for the reason.
There are many possible causes of a cough including infectious diseases like kennel cough, distemper, bronchitis, or an upper respiratory infection such as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), feline calicivirus (FCV) and others in cats. Additional ailments that can cause a cough or breathing difficulties include allergies, asthma, chronic bronchitis, cancer, collapsed trachea, heart disease, heartworms, parasites, periodontal disease, pneumonia, or environmental irritants such as smoke and other pollutants.
Diagnosing the source of a chronic cough or breathing difficulties can take a good deal of investigation and requires the assistance of your veterinarian. Thorough assessment of the history of the cough and a physical examination are the first steps. Additional tests may be necessary such as, blood work, analysis of fluid samples, fecal samples (to check for parasites), x-rays or ultrasound.
Kennel cough, also known as Canine Infectious Tracheobronchitis, is caused by a variety of viruses and is normally passed between dogs, especially when stressed, in close quarters such as kennels, shelters, grooming establishments, dog shows, pet shops and even veterinary hospitals. Symptoms are typically a dry, hacking cough that often ends with a retching or gagging. One may also notice a watery discharge from the eyes and/or nose and poor appetite. Symptoms may not appear for up to 10 days after the dog’s exposure to the virus. Kennel cough is generally not serious for a dog with a normally healthy immune system.
Immune support (see below), steam or vaporized air and rest are the best remedies. Use a vaporizer to help moisten the air, or steam up the bathroom if you don’t have a vaporizer. Keep your dog isolated during this illness since it can be easily transmitted to other dogs and sometimes even cats and humans.
Calicivirus (FCV) is part of the feline upper respiratory infection (URI) complex, a group of viral and bacterial infections (e.g., FHV-1, chlamydiosis) that cause discharge from the eyes and nose. Calicivirus and feline rhinotracheitis virus (or feline herpesvirus infection-1, FHV-1) account for 85% to 90% of all URIs in cats. A cough or breathing difficulties can accompany these viruses.
If your dog or cat is diagnosed with a respiratory viral infection antibiotics will not help, (unless there is a secondary bacterial infection). The best home treatment is to support the immune system for a speedier recovery. Vitamin C, antioxidants including vitamins E and A, and herbal formulas can help support the immune system as the virus runs its course (typically 2-3 weeks). Vitamin A not only boosts immunity but also helps counteract stress and supports the membranes of the respiratory tract. Cod liver oil is an excellent source of vitamin A and provides the added health benefits of essential fatty acids. A liquid fast of broth and water during the initial day or two of symptom onset is often recommended and animals may voluntarily (lose interest in food). A dog or cat with no other disease complications other than a viral infection can safely fast for several days, so offer broth and keep plenty of fresh water available, but do not force food unless directed by your veterinarian.
Inhalant allergies may also cause symptoms of an upper or lower respiratory infection. Identifying the specific allergen or allergens can be quite challenging (see Asthma below), and traditional allergy tests are not always reliable, so a holistic approach is best. Treatment for inhalant allergies includes a change in diet to a high-quality allergy formula with no fillers, artificial preservatives or by-products along with proper supplements to help alleviate symptoms and balance the immune system. Please see “Alleviating Your Pet’s Itchy Skin” which outlines the steps for allergy relief, including inhalant allergies. Check our Only Natural Pet allergy products, like our Allergy Kits, for simplified supplement choices.Integrative Therpeutics allergy products, like Inflamzyme, can act as a natural anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory and can be helpful for animals with inhalant allergies.
Asthma is more common in cats and is most frequently associated with allergies or inhalant irritants. It is difficult to differentiate between asthma and chronic bronchitis as the symptoms are the same. Symptoms may vary from occasional coughing to frequent and persistent coughing spells and wheezing. Cats may stand with their neck extended while they cough and breath through their mouth in an effort to get air into their lungs. Normal respiration in a cat is 20-30 breaths per minute and normal pulse rate is 110-140 per minute. Higher than normal pulse and respiration rates can be signs of asthma or bronchitis. Asthma is characterized by airway hyper-reactivity and constriction in the bronchioles of the lungs and is considered reversible. Chronic bronchitis involves airway inflammation and excessive mucus production. Chronic bronchitis can lead to irreversible narrowing of the airways.
The allergen responsible for causing asthma symptoms may be a single source or, more likely, a combination of any number of things including pollens, mold & mildew, smoke, household products such as cleaners, pesticides, hair sprays or perfumes, cat litter, dust & dust mites, vaccines, stress, cold air, dry air and food. A very high-quality air cleaner is a good investment for the household with an asthmatic pet. Use natural, non-toxic cleaning products, eliminate air freshener plug-ins and sprays, keep the house clean and as dust-free as possible and use a humidifier if the air is dry.
As in treating allergies, a diet change is crucial. Cats with asthma should not eat dry food but should be fed a grain-free canned, freeze dried, dehydrated, home-prepared or raw food diet. Herbal respiratory support and/or homeopathic respiratory supplements may offer enough symptom relief to reduce or even eliminate the use of inhalers and steroids for some cats. Ivy leaf extract has a long history of use for adults and children with asthma. Initial reports about its use with asthmatic cats have been promising.PetAlive AmazaPet is a combination of herbs and homeopathic ingredients to help reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. The herbal complex in Nature’s Herbs Respiratory Relief may also provide relief for animals with asthma and bronchitis symptoms. Newton Homeopathics Cough-Asthama is a homeopathic remedy designed for symptom relief of respiratory difficulties including asthma.
If mucous production is involved such as with chronic bronchitis, then the addition of a respiratory support product like N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC) can be useful in helping to break down mucous and improve breathing capacity. NAC is also an excellent antioxidant.
Periodontal disease or tooth and mouth infections can cause coughing as well. Oral infections can cause inflammation in the throat causing the animal to cough. An infection in the mouth can also cause tonsillitis which will result in coughing. This is most common in small dog breeds such as Toy poodles, Yorkshire terriers, Maltese and Pomeranians. Periodontal infections can migrate to the valves of the heart and cause damage there as well. This is why proper dental care is so important for our companion animals. Once the problem has progressed this far, oral surgery is often necessary to remove infected teeth and clean the rest. Please see the article “Dental Health Care for Your Pet” in our archives.
Collapsed Trachea is most common among toy and miniature dog breeds. The trachea is formed by c-shaped rings of cartilage that can degenerate and "collapse". In collapsing trachea the inner soft portion of the windpipe is sucked into the airway when the dog breaths in. As the membranes of the trachea become inflamed over time the cough will worsen. The cough is fequently dry and sounds like a goose honk. Tugging on the leash will aggravate this condition so a harness is best. Inhalant allergens and irritants can also exacerbate the problem, so reducing exposure and supplements such as Quercezyme may be helpful.
Coughing can also be caused by Heart conditions such as congestive heart disease and dilated cardiomyopathy. Please see the article “Heart Disease in Companion Animals” for more information.
Have patience while your veterinarian helps you diagnose the source of your companion’s cough or breathing difficulties. It is helpful to have a “team” of veterinarians including a conventional hospital with more sophisticated diagnostic equipment as well as a holistically trained veterinarian who can help you sort through the test results and determine the best course of action. Sometimes the best that can be done is to narrow down the possibilities and try a treatment or two to find what works. Remember that optimal nutrition is always the first place to start.