Our furry companions are more similar to us than we can imagine — and that fact becomes all the more evident once they show signs of illness. In particular, a dog coughing and gagging can eerily remind us of ourselves when we fail to drink water properly or forget to chew our food, rather than inhale it.
Unfortunately, in the case of dogs, there is a large number of potential issues that may point to some more severe health conditions. Of course, it could be that a dog coughing and gagging has simply tried to eat a Lego piece or some other toy. Still, it’s best to be aware of all the dangers seemingly innocent coughing may bring upon — and that’s exactly what we will be examining today.
12 Potential Reasons Your Dog Is Coughing and Gagging
1. Kennel Cough
A dog coughing and gagging could be a reason for concern, as it might be a sign of kennel cough (canine infectious tracheobronchitis). However, there’s no reason to cry out in despair just yet — this is not as serious of a condition as it may sound.
Dogs can catch kennel cough by inhaling virus particles or bacteria (most commonly Bordetella bronchiseptica). If they are completely healthy beforehand, the infectious particles may not pose much of a threat, as the mucus that lines the respiratory tract can entrap them. However, that level of protection may be weakened at some point, which can then lead to inflammation of the trachea and larynx.
The cough mostly attributed to this condition is quite forceful and can be persistent, especially after vigorous activity or excitement. Other symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, and some discharge.
However, the good news is that even though it’s contagious, kennel cough can be cured. Most dogs can heal on their own, but the vet may prescribe antibiotics and cough medicine for good measure. The recovery time varies, though, depending on the dog’s general health condition. Older dogs with other medical issues may need more time to be as good as new, whereas younger ones could be completely healthy in a couple of weeks.
Kennel cough can also be potentially prevented with a vaccine, which can be given to the dog in the form of a nasal mist, an injection, or through the mouth. We use “potentially” here as the vaccine is not a guarantee; a variety of bacteria and viruses can cause kennel cough, so it may not be foolproof.
2. Chronic Bronchitis
A dog coughing and gagging may also be a sign of chronic bronchitis, a condition that affects the bronchi (air passageways). In the case of this health problem, the bronchi may be inflamed, which can make them swell and become more narrow. The transport of air into and out of alveoli can get blocked by mucus and other secretions too.
There are both acute and chronic bronchitis, with the latter being labeled “chronic” if it lasts for more than two months. Naturally, it is the more serious version of the condition, as the cause is sometimes difficult to identify and may be linked to the dog’s genetics. Another problem is that it causes irreparable damage to the respiratory system. In a sense, it’s incurable, though we may alleviate some symptoms.
The most common symptoms are coughing and gagging, as well as wheezing and vomiting or retching (dry heaving). The dog is likely to have difficulty breathing too, and it may even lose consciousness sometimes. Aversion to exercise and lethargy may also occur in some dogs.
3. Laryngeal Paralysis
The voice box, or the larynx, can pose quite a few problems to our dogs, and one of them is laryngeal paralysis. In the case of this condition, the laryngeal muscles stop functioning as they should. The nerves become weak, which, in turn, relaxes the muscles, to the point that the cartilages collapse inward.
This results in somewhat restricted breathing, shortage of breath, noisy breathing, coughing, and gagging. The dog’s bark may change too, and in the most severe cases, respiratory distress with bluish mucous membranes may also happen.
Usually, the cause of this paralysis is often idiopathic, so we cannot say for sure what to be wary of. Endocrine conditions (hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease) may be to blame, but so can tumors and lesions. It’s not uncommon for it to develop if the dog has suffered some trauma to the neck or throat. Still, a dog may also be born with congenital laryngeal paralysis.
4. Collapsing Trachea
A dog coughing and gagging could be a symptom of tracheal collapse, which can be either a congenital (malformation of cartilage rings at birth) or an acquired condition (age and other health issues). It’s related to the tube of cartilage each dog has in its throat. This tube transports the air back and forth, allowing the pooch to breathe. However, if it collapses, it cannot function properly, leading to:
- Dry cough (which sounds like a goose honk)
- Gagging when eating or drinking
- Lethargy and low energy
- Labored breathing
- Bluish gums
- Exercise intolerance
In a nutshell, if a dog has tracheal collapse, it will develop a chronic cough that will only become worse whenever it has to exert itself, such as during exercise, when wearing a tight collar, etc.
The good news is that the condition is manageable with some medications or surgery. Lifestyle changes may be in order as well, as it is often diagnosed in obese dogs.
A dog coughing and gagging may have succumbed to some form of an infection (viral, parasitic, fungal, or bacterial). The most common type of infection is the kennel cough, but that’s the least dangerous one by far. Some fungal infections, like Aspergillosis, and parasitic ones, such as heartworm, are far worse and more challenging to deal with.
Aspergillosis is caused by a type of mold called Aspergillus and can affect pooches with already compromised immune systems. The disease mostly affects the respiratory system, as it’s transferred through the nose and sinuses. Major symptoms include coughing (the nose and upper airways get irritated), sneezing, nose swelling and bleeding, and decreased appetite.
Blastomycosis, on the other hand, is a regional disease (prefers warm and moist environments, like the Eastern seaboard, Mississippi River valleys, the Great Lakes region) that a dog can catch by inhaling infected spores found in decomposing organic matter and soil. Lameness, coughing, and weight loss are its most common symptoms. If we don’t treat it on time, it can lead to pneumonia too.
Finally, there’s Cryptococcus, which is also transmitted through infected spores. However, in comparison to the other two, this one seems to be the most invasive. It doesn’t just cause coughing and gagging; it affects the brain, the skin, the eyes, and the lymph nodes. Some of its other symptoms include an imbalanced gait, seizures, and circling, as well as blindness, eye inflammation, and swollen lymph nodes.
One of the most common signs of parasitic infections is coughing, so it’s crucial to check for these if you decide to take your dog to the vet. Several types of parasites may induce coughing and maybe even gagging in dogs, especially roundworms and heartworms.
Dogs can get infected with heartworms by getting bitten by a mosquito. This is an internal parasite that enters the bloodstream and goes way up to the dog’s heart, where it can clog it and prevent it from functioning normally.
As soon as it slows down the blood flow, the dog may develop a persistent cough, alongside other symptoms. In case it’s not treated properly, it may have lasting damage on the heart and lungs, causing heart failure and, ultimately, death.
Roundworms are very common, but a form of intestinal parasites most often seen in puppies. In fact, the little ones may be born with them or get the larvae through nursing. Otherwise, they may catch them in their environment or through eating infected animals.
Either way, these spaghetti-like worms may be accompanied by a host of symptoms, including coughing, malnourishment, vomiting, and diarrhea. One of the most telling signs is stomach swelling; if the condition hasn’t been treated and the worms have grown a lot, a pot-bellied appearance is an unmissable sign.
A dog coughing and gagging may sometimes be a sign of underlying heart disease, though this isn’t the first guess most of the time. Still, it’s definitely something to check for, as it’s a progressive condition that can ultimately lead to heart failure.
Most commonly, dogs can suffer from pericardial, myocardial, and chronic valvular disease. Some dogs may also have a heart murmur, while others may suffer from arrhythmias.
The usual symptoms are somewhat similar to the ones humans can experience as well. The dog may have shortness of breath, develop a serious cough, and lose appetite and weight. In some cases, the pooch may faint from time to time and experience some rear limb weakness. Naturally, behavioral changes are also common.
Heart disease can be congenital or acquired, but the main issue is that its symptoms can match other conditions as well. Thus, it requires a major examination to get a clear idea of what the main cause might be.
Remember that it’s not something dog owners can actually prevent completely (like humans can by not smoking or avoiding greasy food, for instance). Wellness exams and heartworm preventative medications are recommended, though. Heartworm disease can contribute to it, but it is preventable.
Unfortunately, a dog coughing and gagging can also be a sign of distemper, though the condition is not so common among owners who stay on top of their pooch’s vaccines. Also known as hard pad disease, distemper is a viral disease that’s highly contagious and potentially lethal.
Since there is a vaccine for it, most owners don’t have to worry much about it. However, suppose we’re talking about shelter dogs that may not get the best care in the world. In that case, they could potentially catch it through the placenta, airborne exposure, or direct contact (with infected animals or objects carrying the virus).
You may be familiar with the Paramyxoviridae family of viruses, which this virus belongs to. It’s the same family that’s responsible for the virus that causes measles in humans, seal distemper, and rinderpest in cattle.
More often than not, the condition resembles a common cold. The problem is that it’s very much prevalent in wildlife, so a vaccine is a must.
Apart from coughing and gagging, the disease is accompanied by other serious symptoms, such as:
- Watery or pus-like discharge
- Loss of appetite
- High fever
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Hyperkeratosis (the thickening of the footpads, which causes lots of discomfort and pain).
If the disease progresses, the symptoms become even more severe as the damage reaches the pooch’s central nervous system. Circling and head tilting are common, and so is full or partial paralysis. The dog may experience seizures as well, nystagmus, muscle twitches, and convulsions.
8. Canine Influenza Virus
A dog coughing and gagging could be a sign of kennel cough, but unfortunately, the symptoms of that disease may sometimes match that of the canine influenza virus. Right now, we know of two strains found in the USA, H3N2 and H3N8.
Much like in humans, dog flu is airborne, so every time an infected dog breathes, sneezes, or coughs, another one may catch the virus by inhaling the particles.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only way it may be transmitted; infections can happen if dogs share kennel surfaces, collars, or bowls too. People can also come in contact with an infected dog and transport the infectious particle further.
Usually, almost all dogs can catch the virus, especially in common breeding grounds such as grooming parlors, doggy daycare centers, etc. However, some may not show any of the following symptoms:
- Coughing (dry and moist)
- Runny, watery eyes
- Nasal discharge and sneezing
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Pneumonia and high fever (severe cases)
One thing to know about the dog flu is that some states require vets to report the cases. Thus, it’s best to take the dog to the vet’s office to ensure it doesn’t spread the virus around. The pup will likely have to spend some time in quarantine, especially if you have other pets as well. There is no cure, though — just lots of rest and plenty of fluids.
Sneezing and nasal discharge are common in dogs with sinus problems, so sinusitis is definitely something to check for in case coughing becomes an issue as well. A sinus infection happens when the sinus passages get inflamed. Thus, mucus cannot be naturally eliminated.
Unfortunately for any vet trying to determine the cause, sinus infections may be rooted in allergens, viral, parasitic, fungal, and bacterial infections, asthma, autoimmune diseases, dental disease, trauma, foreign bodies trapped in the nasal cavity or sinuses, etc.
The list of symptoms is a lengthy one as well, with coughing and gagging being some of the most common ones, alongside:
- Difficulty breathing
- Nasal discharge and bleeding
- Purulent eye discharge
- Pain (around the eyes and forehead)
- Loss of appetite and rapid weight loss.
The pooch may also change its behavior a bit, or rather, its stance. The dog may leave its head hanging and keep its eyes partially closed while sitting down. Pawing at the nose is also common.
10. Sore Throat
Weirdly enough, a dog coughing and gagging may just be suffering from a sore throat. Just like humans, our furry friends may, on occasion, experience an inflamed throat as a result of a secondary infection of the mouth or throat.
Sometimes, tonsils may get enlarged due to an infection or inflammation. Tonsillitis, however, is fairly uncommon among dogs, and even when it happens, smaller, brachycephalic breeds are at a higher risk.
In the case of a sore throat, the dog will most likely cough, but we may hear different types of cough depending on what the root cause is. High-pitched gagging may also occur, and it’s often a sign of a partial blockage or perhaps upper airway irritation.
Although not so common, as they account for about 1% of all diagnosed cancers in dogs, lung tumors are the worst diagnosis by far. Fortunately for all dog owners out there, there is a chance for recovery if the vet catches the tumor early.
Keep in mind, though, that metastatic cancer is more common than the primary variety. This means that it has the potential to spread fast all over the body, thus requiring regular screening and routine staging.
The symptoms aren’t that surprising; apart from coughing, the dog may also experience non-specific symptoms, such as weight loss, lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, lethargy, and lameness. These symptoms match a variety of other conditions, which make lung cancer all the more dangerous. Worst of all, only some dogs exhibit clinical signs, so the disease may even go unnoticed.
12. Foreign Objects in the Throat
Finally, a dog coughing and gagging may simply have something in its throat that’s preventing it from breathing normally. Since pooches, both young and old, love to explore, they won’t hesitate to lick, chew, and swallow whatever they may get their paws on around your home.
This may lead to the obstruction of the air passages, which, in turn, may cause coughing and gagging. Worst of all, if the object ends up in the esophagus, it may put the dog’s life in danger.
Accidental ingestion or inhalation is also common, but immediate vet intervention is a must in that case too. We don’t know how the dog may react to the foreign object (or even something as insignificant as a grass seed). Irritation is a likely result, but infection or pneumonia are also potential outcomes if we don’t treat the dog on time.
When Coughing and Gagging Isn’t the Issue: Reverse Sneezing
If we see our dog coughing and gagging, various alarms may go off in our heads. However, sometimes, the motion may only look like a cough, but it is simply a sneeze going backward.
Some dog breeds, specifically smaller and flat-faced ones, may experience reverse sneezing from time to time. The condition is self-explanatory; it looks and sounds like the dog is trying to inhale its sneezes. Thus, some owners may think it’s actually gagging and coughing.
The truth is, the dog is trying to expel an irritant from the nasopharynx, as opposed to normal sneezing when it’s eliminating irritants found in the nasal passages.
Reverse sneezing doesn’t occur by itself — the dog’s soft palate gets irritated by allergies, eating or drinking, objects in the throat, leash pulling, household products, nasal mites, etc. Sometimes, an elongated soft palate (which is found in breeds with shorter snouts) is the main problem.
In either case, reverse sneezing isn’t coughing or gagging, but the sounds the dog makes may make you believe so. This video may explain the sound further:
The good news is that it’s a benign condition that doesn’t require treatment if it only happens once in a while. It’s best to prevent the condition from disrupting the dog’s life, however.
We can always identify the triggers and try to avoid them, or at least keep the dog as far away from them as possible. Still, if the condition persists and the sneezing becomes more frequent and possibly even longer (it usually lasts for about 30 seconds or less), that is a cause for concern.
Potential Treatment and Outcome Depend on the Diagnosis
We would love to tell you that all of these conditions could be treated in just a few days, but some may require more attention.
More often than not, medications can resolve some issues fast. In particular, antibiotics are very much in use and can treat kennel cough, respiratory infections, and pneumonia.
However, other conditions may require surgery instead — tracheal collapse and heart disease, for instance. The vet may help alleviate the symptoms of these two conditions with some medications too, but surgery may be unavoidable in some cases.
For precise treatment plans, it’s necessary to visit a vet and test the dog on various diseases and conditions. Diagnosing it yourself won’t do much good and may even prevent you from noticing telltale signs of more serious illnesses.
A dog coughing and gagging is unlikely a good sign unless we maybe have a flat-faced breed that’s actually sneezing in reverse. Because of that, we do suggest checking with a vet whether there is a real problem at hand.
It might be that the dog only has a sore throat, but it could also be something more serious, like distemper. In either case, a dog coughing and gagging ought to be diagnosed fast by doing a variety of tests (physical, blood, and fecal exams, X-rays, and the like). After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially since some of the conditions are progressive and potentially life-threatening if ignored!