Recurring cough in an old dog signals a trip to the vet

The hardest part of sharing your life with animals is watching them grow old. Our oldest dog Toni is now 12, and I fear she's on the downward slide.

Her arthritis is such that moving is a trial, and she'd rather sleep on her soft sling bed in the TV room. The golden fur on her muzzle is now mostly white and her eyes, never good, are now milky with cataracts.


Although she's a bit grumpy around other people now, and especially tough on other dogs, she's a cream-puff with me, folding up with joy at the mere mention of her name. When I'm petting her she closes her eyes and sighs.

Such are the simple joys of an old dog.


I keep her warm, keep her fed, keep her petted. And keep my eyes open for signs that something serious is starting to go wrong.

Like coughing.

When an old dog starts coughing, it's time to see the vet.

Coughing is a natural response to irritants in the airways, a rush of air that clears dirt, dust, fluids or anything else that blocks free breathing.

When it becomes chronic, however, a veterinarian must start piecing the puzzle together by determining the nature of the cough. Although I felt Toni's cough was age-related, I wanted all the questions answered.

If you've got a coughing pet, here's what your vet will be thinking about:

* Kennel cough: Characterized by a dry, bellowing cough, this illness is a contagious infection of the upper airways. Kennel cough is caused by several viral and bacterial agents, and the good news is that none are really serious. The treatment involves calming the airways so they can heal, a goal reached through the use of depressants to calm the coughing and environmental changes to settle the dog.

There are vaccines available to protect your pet from kennel cough, and it's a good idea to consider them before boarding your pet.


* Heart cough: A cough can be a symptom of heart disease, especially in older animals. An ailing heart will not pump blood properly, causing blood to stagnate in the lungs and fluid to leak into the airways, prompting the animal to cough in an effort to eliminate the accumulation.

The heart cough requires treatment of the heart, not the lungs or airway. With proper diet and medication, a heart problem can be successfully treated for years.

Such a cough can also mean a heartworm infestation, a danger that can be easily avoided by periodic checks for the parasite as well as the regular administration of a heartworm preventive.

* Asthmatic cough: Animals get allergies, too, and a seasonal dry cough could be the sign that your pet is among the afflicted.

Smoke, pollen or dust could trigger a bout of coughing, although there will usually be accompanying signs of allergy -- running eyes, for example. This kind of cough can be treated through environmental control and allergy medication.

* Foreign-body cough: A foxtail inhaled into the lungs can be a cause of the foreign-body cough. It's a cough that needs to be checked out, since even after the cough is gone, the foxtail may still remain.


* Collapsing trachea: The trachea, or windpipe, is held open by rings of cartilage, material that may be none too strong in some breeds, such as dachshunds and poodles. When the animal is excited, the rings may collapse, provoking a terrifying spell of coughing and gagging as the animal struggles to get air through a blocked passageway.

Although there are some medications that help to open up the airway, there's really no permanent cure for the problem. Help the animal through the bout by forcing yourself to be calm and working to calm your pet as well. The problem usually will disappear after the animal relaxes.

Toni's problem turned out to be not the heart trouble I feared, but an infection, easily treated and promptly cured. She sleeps more easily now and is a little more interested in an occasional short walk.

The end is still not too awfully far away, but for now we can all relax and enjoy our time together.