Common Causes of Sneezing and Coughing in Dogs and Cats

Respiratory symptoms are fairly common presentations in the small animal veterinary clinic. Symptoms may involve the upper or lower respiratory tract and include any combination of the following: eye and nasal discharge, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, or more rapid or difficulty breathing. The two most common presenting symptoms of respiratory tract disease in dogs and cats are sneezing and/or coughing.

Why is my pet sneezing?

Pets will sneeze for one of two reasons. Either the mucous membranes of the nasal cavity are inflamed, or there is some sort of foreign material present in their nasal passages. Nasal membranes become inflamed if a pet was exposed to an irritant or if the pet has contracted an upper respiratory infection.

Common Reasons Dogs and Cats Sneeze: Most of the sneezing dogs and cats that veterinarians examine have contracted upper respiratory infections. Often the only symptom of these mild infections is the sneezing. Pets commonly get exposed to these microbes at kennels, doggie parks, grooming parlors, or pet stores. These colds are most commonly caused by airborne viruses and bacteria. One specific virus of cats that is often the root cause of sneezing is the feline herpes virus, also known as feline rhinotracheitis. Other viruses such as calici virus, as well as bacteria such as chlamydia and mycoplasma are also common causes of sneezing in our feline companions. Although sneezing may be the only sign of infection, most cats have inflamed eye membranes as well, and some may even have a low grade fever. Some cats are silent carriers of these respiratory viruses and bacteria and show little symptoms, however physical or emotional stress may trigger an outbreak in a susceptible animal.

The two most "common cold" viruses of dogs are the Parainfluenza virus and the Type-2 Adenovirus. Other bacteria including Pasteurella, bordatella, and Mycoplasma may also be involved. There are also many noninfectious causes of sneezing in dogs and cats as well. Household irritants, including dustry litter, perfumes, cleaners, cigarette smoke and many others may cause sensitive pets to sneeze. Pollens and molds in the air may also cause sneezing in allergic pets. Foreign bodies including grass or seedpods may also lodge in the nasal passages and cause sneezing and discharge. With one-sided nasal discharge and sneezing in older pets, nasal polyps and/or tumors must also be considered as differentials. Finally, tooth root abcesses involving the back upper premolar teeth may cause sneezing and nasal discharge as well. Certain breeds known as bracheocephalic breeds may have compressed nasal passages or a flat face, and are more likely to sneeze due to infection or irritants.

Treatment Options for a Sneezing Dog or Cat: Many cases of mild sneezing and nasal discharge do not require aggressive treatment, and will often resolve on their own within 2 weeks. However, if a pet has symptoms of lethargy, fever or discomfort, a more serious respiratory infection may be present, and broad spectrum antibiotics may be indicated to treat or prevent secondary bacterial infections. There are no proven effective prescription antiviral oral medications for pets, and often supportive care and/or immune stimulants are indicated. If nostrils become raw or inflamed, a bland ophthalmic ointment and frequent cleaning of the nose with warm, cotton balls or gauze may be all that is needed. The amino acid L-Lysine has been often effective in cases of cats with herpes viral sneezing, and I have found the product Vetri-lysine plus soft chews helpful in many cases. Vetri DMG liquid is also an effective immune stimulant in both dogs and cats to help with both viral and bacterial infections. Placing a few drops of an ophthalmic or nasal saline rinse into the pet's nostrils a few times a day may also help. In cases of allergic sneezing, antihistamines like Chlorpheniramine or Benadryl may also help lessen severity of symptoms. In pets with severe nasal symptoms, steam vaporization, nebulization, or taking the pet into a hot shower area may help open up the nasal passages and clear nasal discharge and exudate. Foreign bodies that have lodged in the nasal passages may require manual removal at surgery or using a special small endoscope. Some polyps and/or small tumors may also be removed in this way, however nasal tumors are very aggressive and usually require chemo and/or radiation therapy to help lessen symptoms.

What causes my pet to cough?

Pets may cough for many reasons. Some of them are very minor, while some are more serious. Some pets will cough innocently if they drink water too fast, or coughing could be the first sign of more serious problems of the heart or lungs. No matter what the cause, irritation and/or inflammation of the larger and/or lower airways are involved with most cases of coughing in pets.

Common Reasons Dogs and Cats Cough: Certain breeds of pets with anatomic problems of their airways, including elongated soft palates may develop coughing at some point in their lives. This is often seen in brachyocephalic breeds of dogs, including Shi Tzus, Lhasa Apsos, Bulldogs, Pugs and Pekingese dogs. Flat faced Persian cats also may be predisposed to coughing. Toy breeds of dogs are especially prone to narrowed windpipes or trachea leading to a goose honk type cough, especially in pets that are overweight. Tooth and mouth infections, as well as pets prone to gum disease are also prone to developing secondary infections of the airways and subsequent coughing. Many small breeds may also be prone to migration of the infection from their mouths to the valves of the heart as well. That is why it is so important to maintain good periodontal health in our dogs and cats. Tonsil infections or tonsillitis, as well as kennel cough, or infectious tracheobronchitis, may also cause coughing in dogs and less frequently cats. When infection involves the alveoli of the lungs, pneumonia may develop and subsequent coughing. Distemper is now a rare virus seen in dogs, but affected pets may present with coughing and nasal discharge. Asthma or allergic lower airway disease is a very common cause of coughing in felines. Some cases of cats with herpes or rhinotracheitis virus will present with coughing as well. Long-haired cats are also prone to forming hairballs and secondary coughing. Migrating intestinal parasites may also cause a cough on occasion. Other causes of coughing include allergies and irritants, as well as lung tumors in older pets. Heart problems, including heartworm disease, dilated cardiomyopathy, mitral valve disease, and congestive heart failure may all cause coughing as part of the clinical presentation.

Treatment Options for a Coughing Dog or Cat: The treatment of pets who cough will depend upon the specific underlying causes above, as determined by a full veterinary exam and diagnostic workup. In cases of infections, 2-3 week courses of antibiotics may be indicated, as well as treatment and prevention of intestinal parasites and heartworms or lungworms. That is why it is so important to have pets on monthly preventative medication such as Heartgard Plus or Iverhart Max. In pets with dental or gum disease, ultrasonic scaling, as well as preventative at home care is also recommended. In pets with anatomic or infectious causes of coughing, prescription bronchodilators, including Theophylline or aminophylline may be helpful. In noninfectious cases of coughing, including asthma in cats, corticosteroids are often prescribed for symptomatic relief. Coughing from heart disease may be helped by addressing the heart problem and fluid buildup with drugs such as the diuretic Lasix, and medicines to dilate the blood vessels such as Enalapril. Herbal immune stimulants including echinacea and goldenseal, as well as elderberry may help with infectious cases of coughing. HomeoPet Cough Relief is a combination homeopathic remedy that may be utilized on a short term basis.

Max's Tip

Mild cases of coughing and sneezing in pets may be self-limiting and require minimal treatment. If cases persist or becomes more severe, a full veterinary diagnostic workup is recommended so specific treatment can be implemented.