It can be worrisome to see your beloved pet coughing, having difficulty breathing, or otherwise ill. Of course, the best thing you can do for a dog who keeps coughing or gagging is to take him to the vet.
But if you’re asking “why does my dog keep coughing gagging like he’s choking?” it can be helpful to have an idea of what might be going on before you go. Let’s take a look at some of the causes of choking and gagging in dogs.
Coughing vs. Gagging vs. Vomiting
A dog’s cough usually is pretty easy to identify. But just in case, we’ll clarify the differences between the sometimes-related symptoms of coughing, gagging, and vomiting.
A cough is a quick expulsion of air from the lungs. A cough can help a dog (or person!) get rid of obstructions or foreign particles like bacteria or viruses.
Gagging, on the other hand, is a reflex that often sounds like the beginning of vomiting. It usually happens when food or water is consumed too quickly. Some of the other symptoms that happen along with coughing sound a lot like gagging, though they may not all technically be gagging.
Coughing and gagging will lead some dogs to vomit or dry heave. Of course, vomiting involves actually purging stomach contents. Dry heaving is when a dog tries to vomit, but no stomach contents come out.
Why Does My Dog Keep Coughing or Gagging?
If your dog keeps gagging on nothing, there’s a chance that there’s an underlying health problem. Likewise, if you hear more than just the occasional cough, your dog may be ill.
Luckily, with the state of veterinary medicine as it is today, many of the issues causing coughing and gagging can be treated. But before you can start treatment, you and your vet will need to know what’s wrong.
So what causes a dog to gag and/or cough? Here are some of the most common causes you should know.
Just like in humans, respiratory illnesses in dogs can cause coughing and sometimes gagging. One of the most common illnesses that does this is kennel cough, discussed in more detail below.
Pneumonia is an example of a severe illness that can result in a coughing dog. This severe infection often develops after another illness like influenza or distemper. A sick dog who has pneumonia will usually have a productive cough, reduced appetite, trouble breathing, and a high fever. Pneumonia can progress rapidly, so immediate veterinary attention is a must.
Sadly, if your dog’s cough is very persistent, lung cancer or another type of cancer could be the culprit. But lung cancer isn’t terribly common in dogs, so chances are good that your dog’s cough is caused by something that’s easier to treat.
In some cases, a dog’s coughing or gagging is caused by a foreign object stuck in the throat. Dogs are curious and will often eat or chew foreign material.
To reduce the risk of this happening to your pet, keep a close eye on your dog as he plays outside. Make especially sure to discourage your pet from chewing on rocks and sticks, as they are especially prone to causing problems.
Usually, your dog will be able to cough up the foreign object without incident. But if he can’t immediately dislodge it, he should see a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Just like people, dogs can develop bronchitis. Canine chronic bronchitis causes a hacking cough. It also causes exercise intolerance, as the cough will get much worse with exercise (and even just with excitement).
Chronic bronchitis happens when the respiratory tract is chronically inflamed. In dogs, that inflammation commonly comes from regular exposure to cigarette smoke or to other air pollutants.
If you notice chronic gagging and/or coughing, a collapsed trachea may be the culprit. This sounds like a scary diagnosis, but there are many levels of tracheal collapse, and most can be treated before your dog develops severe long-term complications.
Collapsed tracheas are more common in some dog breeds than in others: they are more common in small breeds like the Yorkshire Terrier or the Chihuahua. Weight gain and tight collars (or your dog pulling excessively on the leash) can both increase your dog’s risk.
On its own, weight gain won’t usually cause a cough. But if your dog wears a collar and has started coughing more, it’s possible he has gained weight and the collar is too tight. Take a minute and make sure you can fit two fingers under the collar. If you can’t do this, loosen your dog’s collar — sometimes, this is all it will take to get rid of the cough.
You might not think that intestinal parasites would cause any issue with your dog’s airways. But if you notice that your dog’s gagging has become chronic (and that your dog does more gagging than coughing), he might have roundworm.
Though roundworms are intestinal parasites, their larvae can migrate up to the lungs and get into the air sacs.
Obviously, a dog with roundworm needs immediate veterinary care. But the good news is that regular deworming will make this kind of infestation a lot less likely.
Heart disease (or even congestive heart failure) can often cause senior dogs to regularly gag. That’s because heart disease will sometimes make your dog’s heart swell and put pressure on the airways. Alternatively, heart disease will sometimes cause fluid to build up in the lungs.
If heart disease is the underlying cause of your dog’s gagging, you will likely hear labored breathing after gagging. Your dog will probably be lethargic, and he may have a bluish-looking tongue.
Sinusitis (a sinus infection) and rhinitis (a nasal infection) can cause coughing or gagging as well. That’s mostly because both can cause postnasal drip, or the dripping of mucus into the dog’s throat.
Though your veterinarian will be able to prescribe medication to treat either infection, you can reduce your dog’s risk by promptly treating infected teeth.
Allergic or Asthmatic Cough
Most of us have probably had some form of respiratory distress thanks to asthma or allergies. These things can impact dogs, too.
Dogs with asthma and/or allergies are especially sensitive to things in the environment, including pollen and cigarette smoke.
Just like with people, dogs with allergies will also have runny eyes and/or other symptoms along with a cough. Luckily, if your vet determines that your dog has allergies, his symptoms can be easily treated with allergy medication.
Reverse sneezing sounds strange. It’s known to affect dogs with “smushed” faces (like pugs). Though a reverse sneeze sounds like either coughing or gagging, it’s neither.
When a reverse sneeze happens, the dog’s throat becomes irritated, causing a spasm. That spasm pulls air very quickly into the nose and through the airways. A sneeze pushes air through the dog’s respiratory tract, while a reverse sneeze pulls air in.
It’s normal for certain dog breeds to sometimes have a reverse sneeze or two. But if it starts to happen more and more often or if the reverse sneezes are especially loud, it might be time for a vet to see if your dog is developing another issue.
Heartworm is an especially scary disease — worms up to a foot long live in the dog’s heart, lungs, and some blood vessels.
Most dogs with heartworm disease will start to develop a persistent cough. Other symptoms include fatigue and weight loss. It’s essential for dog owners to consult with their veterinarians about preventative treatment for heartburn to reduce their dog’s risk.
If you have an older dog who is both coughing and gagging, laryngeal paralysis might be the cause. It’s especially prevalent among Labrador retrievers.
Laryngeal paralysis happens when a dog can no longer control the movements of the larynx. So in order to make sure they can inhale enough air, they will sometimes cough or gag.
Luckily, there are a variety of surgical interventions to help dogs who have this issue.
Why Does My Dog Keep Coughing Gagging Like He’s Choking?
As we saw above, coughing and gagging in dogs can often have similar causes. But if you hear a forceful and persistent cough immediately followed by gagging sounds, your pet may have kennel cough (also known as bordetella).
Kennel cough is rarely life-threatening, and many dogs will get better with a week or so of rest. However, depending on individual circumstances, a veterinarian might opt to prescribe antibiotics in case your dog develops a secondary bacterial infection.
The consistent coughing that comes with kennel cough usually sounds different from most other coughs. Kennel cough usually includes a honking canine cough. It also can sometimes include a runny nose and/or sneezing.
If your dog develops a strong cough, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately. Though kennel cough often goes away on its own, the canine influenza virus and some other serious illnesses start out with a virtually identical cough. Your vet can rule out a more serious underlying illness and also prescribe cough suppressants if necessary.
Be careful if your dog develops kennel cough symptoms — kennel cough is contagious to other dogs, and in some cases, it is even contagious to humans.
What About Dry Heaving?
It’s normal for dogs to vomit occasionally. That can happen if they eat something questionable or devour their food a little too quickly.
Dry-heaving, on the other hand, includes a gagging-like sound, but the dog won’t bring anything up. If your dog dry-heaves, you’ll hear a retching sound and see his belly contract, but he won’t get anything out.
An occasional dry heave isn’t really something to be concerned about. But if your dog is very frequently dry heaving, something serious could be going on.
Bilious Vomiting Syndrome
The odd-sounding bilious vomiting syndrome causes a dog’s stomach to empty much, much more quickly than normal. That sensation will cause enough discomfort that the dog will feel like he has to vomit.
Since there’s really nothing to vomit up, your dog will retch and then throw up a little bit of mucus and fluid that sometimes includes bile.
If you think this could be the case with your dog, you can try to rearrange his feeding schedule. Many dogs with bilious vomiting syndrome will try to throw up in the morning after going without food through the night. Try breaking up your dog’s food into several small meals. If you give him the first meal early in the day and the last meal shortly before he goes to sleep, his symptoms may improve.
We mentioned above that dogs cough with a range of respiratory infections. Sometimes, dry heaving happens as the direct result of a cough.
Dogs with kennel cough tend to have a forceful hacking cough, so it makes sense that the cough could be strong enough to cause a dry heave.
Kennel cough isn’t the only respiratory infection that can cause dry heaving. Respiratory issues caused by viral, bacterial, or fungal infections can cause it, too.
Nausea or an upset stomach is the top cause of dry heaving in dogs. Even if a dog has already vomited, he may continue to dry heave to make sure his stomach is empty.
Chronic nausea in dogs can be caused by a range of health issues that range from mild to severe. If your dog keeps dry heaving, it’s worth taking your dog to the vet.
Tumor or Foreign Body in the Throat
If something gets caught in the throat, you may see your dog coughing or dry heaving. If this is the case, the dry heaving should stop once whatever was stuck has dislodged.
In rarer cases, a tumor growing in your dog’s throat may cause excessive dry heaving. Your vet should be able to remove the tumor.
Bloating might not sound too serious — it starts out when the stomach traps too much food and gas. However, in severe cases, a bloated dog’s stomach can actually flip over onto itself. If this happens, a significant portion of the blood supply can be abruptly cut off. Dogs with this condition may die if they are not promptly treated.
What’s Causing Your Dog’s Cough?
We’ve been through plenty of potential causes for coughing or gagging in dogs. But how do you know what’s affecting your pet?
It will take a veterinarian’s expertise to narrow down the exact cause. But you can help the process by observing some key things about your dog’s cough:
- Is the cough dry? Or is it productive?
- How long has your dog had symptoms?
- Has your dog been around other dogs with a cough or similar symptoms?
- Does your dog have other symptoms besides coughing and/or gagging?
- Does your dog seem unusually sluggish or lethargic?
Be sure to take note of these things and to tell your vet about them at your dog’s appointment. Your vet will likely take your observations into account, and they may also run some tests to help diagnose your dog.
Your vet may examine your dog’s stool or take samples of anything he is coughing up. Chest x-rays and cardiac ultrasounds can help determine if the issue comes from the lungs or heart. Urinalysis and bloodwork can also help to determine underlying health problems.
How to Help Your Dog
With sick dogs or older dogs with chronic health issues, it’s very important to get veterinary care as soon as possible.
Of course, you know your pet best. The occasional cough isn’t usually cause for concern. But if your dog isn’t his usual self and his symptoms seem to be worsening, the right thing to do is to reach out to your vet to help him start feeling better soon.
Need some quick answers? Here are some of the most common questions asked about coughing and gagging in dogs:
That might mean that something is indeed caught in your dog’s throat. If coughing and gagging persist, your dog may have a respiratory illness or infection. Bloating, parasites, tracheal collapse, or other health issues may also be to blame.
If your dog coughs consistently and you want to help him feel better, offering him a half-tablespoon of honey mixed with water a few times ago can help soothe his throat. You can also find a variety of over-the-counter dog cough medications.
The most important thing to do is to make sure a veterinarian can see him quickly. Your vet can give a proper diagnosis and treat underlying health conditions. And if needed, they can also prescribe something to suppress coughing.
This symptom can be caused by a number of health conditions. The most common causes are kennel cough, pneumonia, tracheal collapse, reverse sneezing, and heart disease.
Common causes of coughing and gagging in dogs include respiratory issues, parasitic infections, bloating, and a collapsing trachea.
In older dogs, laryngeal paralysis, heart disease, and tumors are likely causes, along with the causes listed above.