Q. My 11-year-old Pekingese just began having a non-productive husky cough, almost as though he was gagging on something. He has not eaten or drank anything in the past couple of hours, and the gag-like cough began approximately 45 minutes ago and has continued with no changes. I am very concerned; he means the world to me. What is happening and should I be concerned?
A. A gagging cough can mean a lot of things, but most likely is not cause for grave concern. Let’s work through some of the possible diagnoses together, so you can see how veterinarians narrow down the list.
Because your dog is older, puppy respiratory diseases such as distemper are unlikely, especially if your dog has ever been vaccinated. Here is a list of other possibilities:
1. Infection- pneumonia (viral, bacterial, fungal), kennel cough, canine influenza: If your dog is running a fever, has a nasal discharge and is refusing to eat or drink for more than a day or so, a viral infection such as canine influenza or bacterial pneumonia is a possibility, and veterinary attention is required. If your dog has spent any time at a dog park, doggie daycare or a boarding facility, I would be much more suspicious of kennel cough, which is also bacterial infection. Unlike canine influenza, kennel cough can be treated with antibiotics and does not require hospitalization. Fungal disease only occurs in selected areas of the country, so unless your dog has been traveling, it can be ruled out by location.
2. Parasites: Has your dog been tested for heartworm, or is he on a heartworm preventative? A simple test can rule this out. Heartworms definitely can cause coughing, since they reside in the pulmonary artery coming out of the heart.
3. Heart disease: Is the coughing worse in the morning? Does your dog seem to get more easily fatigued? This can be a sign of congestive heart failure, where fluid builds up in the lungs. A veterinary exam is required to rule this out.
4. Bronchitis: Bronchitis is similar to asthma, and generally does not come on all of a sudden, but more gradually. Sometimes it can be caused by a collapsing trachea, a condition where the walls of the airway become weakened, and tend to snap shut when your dog takes a breath in. A good veterinary exam and X-ray may be required to rule this out and differentiate it from heart disease.
Most likely, your dog may have a mild case of bronchitis that may get better by itself. If things do not improve in 24 to 48 hours, a visit to your veterinarian is warranted, and most likely the cause can be narrowed down very quickly with a thorough physical exam and medical history.