This question is a common one for vets all over the world. It can sound as if a foreign body is stuck in the dog’s throat, but this is very rarely the cause of a cough. By far the most likely cause of a dog coughing is a highly infectious, upper respiratory disease, commonly known as kennel cough. It also sounds like whooping cough in children and in fact, one of the organisms causing this syndrome is related to the pertussis bug (whooping cough organism) that can affect kids. The disease causes severe inflammation of the upper airways, especially the windpipe or trachea. So painful is the dog’s throat that every time cold air hits this region, the dog will react to the irritation by coughing and sometimes bringing up white phlegm. People notice the dog coughing during cold nights or first thing in the morning.

Two organisms are involved in causing kennel cough. The first bug is a virus call parainfluenza. The second nasty is a bacteria-like organism called Bordetella bronchisepta. They can either act individually to bring about symptoms, or in worse cases they attack the cells of the upper airways together.

Without treatment, the disease can last much longer and result in permanent damage to the trachea, leaving such bad scar tissue that the dog is continually short of breath and unable to run long distances. It is therefore wise to instigate treatment at the commencement of symptoms rather than waiting.

Your vet will make a diagnosis of kennel cough or viral tracheal bronchitis based on the history and clinical signs. There is no specific symptom that allows a definite diagnosis, but because of the very inflammed upper respiratory tract, a cough can be  elicited by palpation of the wind pipe.

Treatment in the initial stages involves keeping the animal warm especially during the evening and early morning. Broad spectrum antibiotics are prescribed and a good cough syrup eases inflammation of the throat. In severe cases, steam therapy is used to break up mucus.

Vaccines are available for both the viral cause and the bordetella organism. Vaccination for this complex disease is compulsory for animals going into kennels and recommended for all dogs.  Just like human flu viruses, different types occur, so even vaccinated dogs develop symptoms of kennel cough. Generally dogs that have been vaccinated and still manage to contract kennel cough recover more quickly, and very rarely become severe cases resulting in pneumonia.

In a household where a dog develops the symptoms of kennel cough, it is imperative that children, especially those under five are separated from the dog. During the early stages of the disease the dog will shed many virus particles which will become airborne. They can easily affect a child with a developing immune system.