Upper Respiratory Infections, Runny Noses and Coughs

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

You notice a runny nose, hear a cough, think your dog may be breathing funny. At what point does this require a visit to your veterinarian? We seem to be far more willing to wait for further signs of illness with our children than with our pets. As with a child, a dog may have mild signs that will clear quickly without treatment – but they may also be signs of a developing or a chronic disease. We hope to help you understand what they mean.

As with most illness, the signs you see are just that – indications of what is beginning in the upper respiratory system. Let’s discuss that cough. It may be a dry cough or a wet cough. For instance with kennel cough, the dog may have just a mild cough that seems more like an irritated throat but then he may develop a hacking cough that seems to go on and on. He may choke or may eventually cough out some foamy stuff, especially when he has been more active, such as running around outside. If this dog has been kenneled recently, you may suspect kennel cough, a group of contagious diseases that spread rapidly among dogs at boarding kennels, dog shows or in a breeding situation. Sometimes it will clear on it’s on after a period of time but it can lead to more serious complications, such as pneumonia.

Prevention is easy with an intranasal medication so if you do expect your dog to be kenneled, if you use a groomer where you leave the dog all day or if you walk your dog or let him play in a community dog yard, this is one condition that warrants immunization. The disease may be either bacterial or viral; “kennel cough vaccine” only protects against Bordatella so dogs may still be susceptible to other infections. There is a bacterial form of disease that is sometimes considered a form of kennel cough, called infectious tracheobronchitis, which will require antibiotic treatment. Some injectable vaccines also cover parainfluenza. You can discuss with your vet which he or she gives routinely.
A dog with a cough should not be given cough suppressants without veterinary examination to determine if the cough is pneumonia. Pneumonia may be secondary to either bacterial or viral infection. It can also result from aspirating a foreign substance or object. Pneumonia must always be considered a serious illness and warrants veterinary supervision of the treatment of an affected dog. One of the essentials is to determine if there is an underlying genetic predisposition to pneumonia, especially if the dog has had a tendency all his life to respiratory problems. An inherited condition, primary ciliary dyskinesia, is an autoimmune condition that will likely cause the dog problems throughout his life. To learn more about this problem, click on the link in the preceding sentence. It is known to exist in Bichons. Another sign of this condition may be a chronic runny nose.
While noting that a cough may indicate any of the preceding health problems, we would be remiss if we failed to indicate that cough may accompany some heart conditions, giving even more cause for a complete veterinary examination!

A runny nose can be a sign of sinus infection and that infection may be a complication from an abscessed tooth, especially to be considered in an older dog. Bichons have notoriously bad history of dental disease and maintaining a clean mouth is essential. The author recently experienced a 3 month ordeal in an 18 year old Bichon with sinus infection from an abscessed tooth and it was not an easy treatment. One does not anesthetize a dog of his age to pull a canine tooth with its long root so we were left with treating the disease – and a lot of prayer! His recovery actually began, after 3 months of antibiotics, when he finally sneezed hard enough to rid his nasal passages of lots of junk, allowing proper drainage. He had almost stopped eating (couldn’t smell his food!) and was so thin that one wondered what was keeping him alive. Yet he has recovered, gained a pound or more, and intends to join his mother in becoming one of those rare 19 year old Bichons! Or so we choose to think.

When do you go to the vet with any of these symptoms? Any mild signs of respiratory infection can be watched for a day or two but once the cough, the runny nose or the funny breathing begin to worsen, sooner is better than later. For the dog with recurrent illness of this type, it will be very important to find out if he has immune system issues, from hypothyroid disease to primary ciliary dyskinesia. With either of these, oversight by your veterinarian will be critical to maintaining stable health.

This article has been reviewed by a veterinarian for accuracy.

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