Dogs who cough are a common concern for pet-owners and veterinarians. Just like in people, coughing, sneezing and hacking are frequently (but not always) associated with an infection of the lungs, trachea (windpipe), nose and/or eyes. Unfortunately (and again just like in people), it’s not possible to know just by looking or listening what type of infection (bacterial, viral, etc.) is causing the clinical signs (symptoms in people). In dogs, the myriad possible infectious causes of coughing, snorting and hacking (aka canine infectious respiratory disease complex-CIRD-C) makes things challenging. This can impact veterinarians knowing what to do to help patients feel better, AND how to prevent other dogs from becoming sick if they are in contact with those who are coughing or hacking, or in contact with those animals who are carrying bacteria or viruses without showing clinical signs (canine carriers) but are still able to pass on disease.
It’s not fun to feel ill or see those we care for get sick, and the first reaction as devoted parents of pet patients is to seek relief. This typically means heading into the veterinary clinic for diagnosis and therapy. Unfortunately, seeking aid in this way can endanger other dogs through spread of infection, i.e. dog nose to dog nose contact or cough droplets inhaled in a shared air space like a veterinary clinic lobby, treatment room, or ICU. When people (the big and little versions) are sick with a respiratory infection, most clinics will have you check in and wait at a different location from everyone else or put on a mask. Why wouldn’t we want the same level of precaution (and protection) for our pets? …granted the mask thingie is less easily done with animals, i.e. not practical aside from trying it for fun with your dog at home and please send me pictures if you do.
The very best thing to do when your dog suddenly (acutely) begins coughing, hacking or snorting is to contact your veterinary clinic to let them know what you are worried about BEFORE walking into the clinic with your dog. This type of ‘STOP, CALL (email or text if you prefer) and then PROCEED’ strategy with patients who have an acute onset of cough or nasal discharge can reduce spread of illness to other dogs who may happen to be in the veterinary clinic. In fact, your veterinary clinic may ask that you remain in your car with your dog and then come out to you to do an exam and ask questions to gather more information. This isn’t because they don’t like you (or your dog) it’s because they are responsible for all the other dogs who come to the clinic to be seen for various ailments- and the last thing anyone wants is to inadvertently spread an infectious disease from one dog to another causing an outbreak of something like canine flu (influenza virus) or another CIRD-C illness (outbreak links below).
So…if you’re worried about a brand-new cough or nasal drip in your dog, please CALL your veterinary clinic to alert them, relay your concerns and ask how they want you to proceed…but please STOP the instinct to hustle your dog into the clinic before doing so. Similarly, veterinary clinics appreciate your input and mentioning that you’re worried your dog’s cough may be infectious can help them remember to take steps to help your dog- and all the other K9 cuties they care for.
Recent outbreaks of CIRD-C:
Canine Influenza, Ontario, Canada 2018:
Respiratory disease outbreak in a Canadian veterinary hospital associated with canine parainfluenza virus infection: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3524821/
Spread of Canine Influenza A (H3N2) Virus, United States.