A dog coughing and gagging is one of those signs you will notice fast. This may pass quickly on its own, but it could also be a symptom of a more serious condition. You may use dog cough remedies for this, but it's crucial to get to the root of the problem.
It's possible that your dog picked up something outside, at the dog park, the groomer, the kennel or anywhere else you've visited lately. A dog that is coughing and gagging is more concerning in puppies and senior pets.
4 Reasons for Dog Coughing and Gagging
1. Kennel Cough
Kennel cough is severely contagious and will spread like fire in a group setting of dogs (3). A dog may have spells of hard hacking and coughing then gagging like they're going to vomit (4). If a cough is severe enough, vomiting is possible.
Generally, kennel cough sounds worse than it is, and the dog should recover in a week or so. Keep your pet away from all other dogs until the dog coughing and gagging has completely stopped for at least 48 hours.
Go to see a vet to make sure your pet doesn’t need antibiotics. A vet may give your dog a cough suppressant. Your dog should be back to normal in 7 to 10 days (5).
2. Fungal Infection
Coughing and gagging in a dog could also be the sign of a fungal infection, an airborne condition, but it's very rare. This is most prevalent among dogs in the Midwest.
Fungal infections require a vet visit where they will prescribe medication. Fungal infections in dogs are not contagious, but your pet should be kept calm and relaxed to keep them from coughing while they recover.
One of the more common fungal infections in dogs is called Blastomycosis. This condition can infect the dog's skin and respiratory system, which causes dog coughing and gagging. Early detection is vital to treat this fungal infection effectively.
Coughing and gagging in dogs could be a symptom of a heart condition, such as enlarged heart disease. An enlarged heart will press on a dog's esophagus making them cough.
However, the most likely heart condition to cause dog coughing and gagging is heartworm (6, 7). It is contracted when a dog is bitten by a mosquito (8). This disease is most prevalent in the Southeast parts, and it's the lowest in the Northeast parts of the United States (9, 10, 11).
There are ways to prevent heartworm. Monthly medication in pill or liquid form, or a shot that prevents it for 6 months are best. Prevention is crucial since treatment of heartworm in dogs is complicated, and very expensive (12).
4. Other Causes
While the above three are the most common causes of dog coughing and gagging, there are a few other conditions and diseases where studies observed dogs to exhibit similar symptoms:
- Laryngeal dysfunction and paralysis (13, 14)
- Lung inflammation and/or infection (15, 16)
- Other respiratory diseases (17, 18)
Out of these, heartworm remains the most common cause when pet owners bring a coughing and gagging dog to see a veterinarian, so let's discuss it in more detail.
Since it's most likely that your dog's severe case of coughing and gagging is caused by heartworm, it's important to familiarize yourself with this condition (19). Coughing and gagging are just two symptoms of this condition, and the others include:
- poor appetite or none at all
- weight loss
- difficult breathing, rapid respiration
- expanded (bulging) chest
- possibly an allergic reaction to the worms in their bloodstream
- loss of consciousness
Not treating heartworm in a timely manner may lead to a dog's death.
Stages of Heartworm
Thee are four stages of heartworm disease in dogs (20).
Stage 1: A dog is symptom-free, but you might notice a mild cough. Because the symptoms are barely noticeable, the disease is hard to diagnose in the early stage. Even blood tests may return negative. This is why you should test again in a couple of weeks, especially if the dog's health history is unknown.
Stage 2: There are moderate symptoms like a more incessant cough that won't go away, and unusual tiredness. The symptoms may be far enough along at this point to be detected in a test.
Stage 3: Symptoms are getting more severe and obvious. Your dog will cough and gag, feel fatigued and lethargic. There may be trouble with breathing. During this stage, dogs may have a bloody discharge when coughing, too. Heartworm will be obvious in x-rays at this point.
Stage 4: There is a very obvious indication of heartworm symptoms, including severe coughing and gagging in a dog. Your pet will be even more tired after exercising, reluctant to play, eat or do much else.
At each stage of the disease, treatments become more dangerous, severe and costly (21). The last stage of heartworm disease can be fatal. Treatment at this stage is complicated, and there is a possibility that the dog may die in the process (22, 23, 24, 25).
See your veterinarian every six months, and screen the dog for heartworm. You should also see your vet in between checkups if you notice any of these symptoms:
- dog coughing and gagging lasts more than a week or worsens
- loss of appetite
- multiple mild symptoms occurring at the same time
Make a list of things you need to discuss with your vet when you take your dog in for a check up. Be ready with your own questions and concerns as well.
Common Questions Your Vet Will Ask
Here are some examples of common questions that will likely be asked:
- When did the dog last took their medication?
- Is the dog up to date on shots and heartworm preventatives?
- Where has your dog visited lately (dog park, boarding, on vacation)?
- Is your dog social? When was the last time the dog was around other pets?
- When does the dog show symptoms (after exercise, after eating, all the time)?
- Is a dog's cough wet/congested? Does the dog sound like they have a cold?
- Have there been any changes to your dog's daily routine?
- How is your pet's appetite? Are they eating, what's the diet, how much?
- Does a dog sound like they may vomit when coughing?
- What does a dog's coughing sound like? Hard and dry, or wet?
- Have there been changes in your dog's stool? More frequent, loose, runny?
- Does a dog have breathing issues (rapid or labored breathing) between coughs?
The vet will run tests to see if heartworm is the cause of your dog coughing and gagging. It may be an infection, an allergy or a virus, too. If the cause of coughing and gagging is in fact heartworm disease, the vet needs to determine what stage the dog's at.
Diagnosing Heartworm in Dogs
If your dog's coughing and gagging is caused by heartworm, the treatments vary depending on the stage. It's possible that when the worms are killed, the dead ones could lodge in the heart and organs of the dog, stopping blood supply, which would be fatal.
Treatment's goal is to kill adult worms living in a dog's blood vessels and the heart. It is easier to kill them at larvae stage, and there will be less damage to your dog.
Dogs with no symptoms can be treated with a daily dose of the pills. This kills heartworms in their earliest stage (micro filaria). If this treatment is an option, there will be no risks.
In severe cases, heartworm treatment will endanger the dog’s life (26). Similar to cancer treatments, your pet has to be poisoned to kill the worms, in hopes that the worms die before the dog does.
Heartworm Treatment Protocols
If dog coughing and gagging led to a diagnosis of later stages of heartworm, a vet will prescribe a stronger dose of medication. There is another treatment called “slow kill”, which is better for older dogs or heavily infested dogs.
The slow kill method is a daily regimen of medication that kills off the micro filaria and the older, adult worms die off of old age. There will be no more growing to adult size, so once the worms clear the blood vessels and heart, your dog will be in a better shape.
This process can take a couple of years to accomplish, and the medication regimen has to be strictly followed. It's also possible for a dog to suffer more damage to their system.
In a case of a very severe heartworm infestation, surgical removal of worms may be applied (27). In most cases, this is better and safer for the dog, because the worms are removed quicker and there's less anesthesia used on the animal (28, 29, 30). For example, a rate of removing worms from a dog with the use of alligator forceps was found to be at 91.4% during 30.0 ± 7.6 min of procedure time (31).
Medications Used in the Treatment of Heartworm
Ivermectin is advised because of the slow kill rate less stress on the dog (32, 33). To kill the adult heartworms, vets recommend melarsomine (34, 35, 36). It's injected into the muscles on a dog's back, which can be painful. Your pet will receive pain medication beforehand.
There are two different ways of delivery. For a healthier dog, it'll be two injections, one day apart. For dogs showing stronger signs of the disease, it'll be one shot, then the other two shots after a month, given a day apart. That way there is less of a chance for bad reactions.
Using doxycycline is another option of treatments, usually used as a “pre-treatment” but it's more rare among vets and not all of them use it due to possible complications (37).
Home Care for a Coughing Dog with Heartworm
You brought your pet to see a vet due to dog coughing and gagging, and heartworm was diagnosed as the cause. You've received the recommended treatment.
Now, you'll also want to make a few changes in your dog's life.
First, be careful when lifting your dog, because their back is likely to be painful from heartworm injections. Your pet will also need to stay quiet and have no activity for 30 days following the last shot. A comfy, quiet place to lie down is a necessity, since the dog will be doing a lot of that for about a month.
Your pet's monthly heartworm pill will need to be continued. Good nutrition goes a long way in the recovery process, too. Once the tests show a dog is finally healthy, you can start short walks, gradually increasing your pet's activity levels.