Ask The Vet: What Should I Do If My Dog Has a Constant Cough?

Question: My dog “coughs” alot. She is a chihweenie, & it almost seems to be a nervous habit of hers. It does seem to happen when she is excited, like when we get home aftet being gone awhile. It sounds like honking. Every dog I have ever had has coughed a few times in their lives, but, this one excessively coughs. Do you know what this could be and should I have it checked?

Answer: Coughing can occur for a variety of reasons in our canine patients. A cough originates from the respiratory structures, but can be caused by primary disease in the lungs or in the heart. Physical examination can give us clues as to what the cause of the cough might be.

Coughing that originates from the trachea, or the windpipe, is frequently described as a ‘honking’ cough. Tracheal irritation can occur from infectious diseases such as Infectious Tracheobronchitis (commonly known as Kennel Cough) or from structural problems in the trachea.

A commonly seen structural problem in middle aged, small breed dogs is called Collapsing Trachea. The trachea is a tubular structure that is held in place by C-shaped rings of cartilage. A ligament connects the two ends of the ‘C’. This ligament can become floppy as the pet ages and the cartilage rings weaken. When the ligament ‘collapses ‘ into the airway, the patient coughs. Unfortunately, the more the patient coughs, the more inflamed the ligament becomes, allowing it to further collapse into the trachea. An important part of treating the disease is stopping this cycle of coughing.

Radiographs of the patient’s thorax and neck, especially if taken while the patient is coughing, can often be diagnostic for this condition.

Many patients with Collapsing Trachea can be treated medically with cough suppressants and anti-inflammatory medications. Removing any sources of airway irritants, such as secondhand smoke, is also very important. Weight loss can be helpful in patients that are overweight.

However, in some severely affected patients, surgery is indicated. Recently, a procedure has been adapted from human medicine that involves placement of a wire mesh stent that holds the trachea open.

It is important that any coughing patient be seen by your veterinarian to rule out other causes of coughing, such as primary heart disease or disease of the lower airways.

Dr. Julie Irwin, VMD was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. She attended Cornell University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree with a dual major in Mathematics and Biology. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 1998. Julie and Steve met in veterinary school and were married shortly after graduation. Julie’s other interests include rowing, cross-country skiing and hiking. She and Steve, along with their three children, have recently relocated to Seattle and are enjoying exploring the Pacific Northwest.

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