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Many dog owners miss early signs of a cough. Vet’s viral video shows what to look for

Coughing in dogs may be easy to miss. Here's how to tell if your dog has a cough and tips to keep them safe as a mystery respiratory illness spreads in the U.S.
Coughing dog
Dog lying on the grass in the park and coughssanjagrujic / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Do you know what a dog coughing sounds like?

It's the first symptom in most dogs who've contracted the mystery illness spreading across the U.S. And veterinarians are warning that a dog cough can be easily ignored or confused for something else.

In recent weeks, the potentially deadly mystery dog illness has sparked concern among pet owners. It typically starts out as a cough, which usually doesn't respond to typical treatment. Some dogs end up with a chronic cough for weeks to months, breathing difficulties or severe pneumonia, which can lead to death in as little as two or three days, Dr. Renee McDougall, specialty surgeon and director of medical programs at Bond Vet, tells TODAY.com.

While the initial symptoms of the mystery illness may seem like kennel cough — which is caused by a variety of known bacteria and viruses, and usually clears up on its own after a week or so — dogs with the mystery illness test negative for the common causes of respiratory illness, and their coughs tend to last much longer.

What's more, the cause of this mystery illness is unknown. Scientists are still trying to pin down whether the infectious agent is a virus or bacteria, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

As researchers investigate the illness, which has been reported in at least 14 states, veterinarians are urging pet owners to take precautions, look out for symptoms — especially coughing — and contact their vet if anything seems off.

Veterinarians urge knowing the signs of dog coughing

Amid the mystery illness outbreak in dogs, the AVMA is urging owners to monitor their dogs for progressive coughing that may be accompanied nasal or eye discharge and sneezing.

But identifying a dog cough can be harder than you may think, says Dr. Michele Forbes, owner of Compassionate Care Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In a now-viral TikTok video, Forbes explained that canine coughing is often overlooked in the early stages or mistaken for something else: “Rarely do (dog owners) identify a cough until it becomes an overt problem and it’s clearly coming from the chest,” Forbes, who goes by @drforbeez on TikTok, said in the video.

“Dogs have been coughing forever, and they cough for a variety of reasons. It’s not always infectious. But in my experience, pet parents often don’t know what a cough looks (or sounds) like,” Forbes tells TODAY.com, adding that this can delay care.

Forbes says she posted the video — along with clips of different types of dog coughs — to increase awareness.

“We’re catching (the mystery illness) way too late, and some of the less (symptomatic) dogs are spreading it because the owners don’t even know that their dog is coughing and take them out,” she says.

What does dog coughing sound like?

Similar to kennel cough, the mystery illness may start as a dry, hacking cough.

"Think about when your dog is walking on the leash and pulling at the end. The sound they make when they are choking is kind of a classic coughing sound," McDougall explains.

Some dogs may produce a honking sound, similar to a goose.

However, it's also common for a cough to sound like the dog is gagging or clearing the throat, says Forbes. "(Owners) will always report it as, 'My dog is choking,' or, 'My dog has something stuck in his throat,'" she notes.

Owners might also notice their dog's chest heaving and abdomen moving as it coughs. “It may look like a hairball trying to come up, and sometimes they actually do bring up foam or a little bit of white liquid,” says McDougall.

Dogs with a wet cough, which produces phlegm, may make a gargling sound as they hack up mucus.

Severe coughing episodes can also result in a dog retching and throwing up some bile or food, which owners may confuse with vomiting caused by gastrointestinal issues, Dr. Lindsey Ganzer, veterinarian and CEO at North Springs Veterinary Referral Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, tells TODAY.com.

A phenomenon known as reverse-sneezing may also be mistaken for a cough, Ganzer says. This occurs when the dog forcefully sucks in air backwards into their nose rather than coughing outward. Reverse sneezing is often caused by irritants or allergens, and in most cases, it’s nothing to worry about, the experts note. However, if reverse sneezing is accompanied by coughing or nasal discharge, it may be time to call the vet, says Forbes.

When is a cough concerning?

A cough doesn't always have to be infectious or a sign of illness, the experts note. “If it's something your dog always does on an infrequent and intermittent basis, that can be normal,” says Forbes.

If your dog is coughing, "look at the pattern, the frequency, and the trend," says Forbes. In other words, watch for changes in the timing of your dog's coughs, how often it's coughing and whether it's getting worse or better over time.

“What we’re looking for is: Is this a dog who maybe did this once or twice a month and is now doing it three to four times a day? That would be concerning,” Forbes adds.

If the coughing is not getting better after about a week or so, that may also be a sign of an underlying problem, according to the experts.

Another warning sign is if the cough is accompanied by other symptoms of respiratory illness, such as sneezing, nasal or eye discharge, and lack of appetite. This mystery illness also has lethargy and fever as common early symptoms, Forbes says. 

Bottom line: Owners can typically tell if something is off with their dogs, the experts note. “It all goes back to knowing your dog’s normal and paying attention to changes,” says Forbes.

What to do if your dog is coughing

If your dog is coughing, contact your veterinarian right away. It's also helpful for owners to take videos of their dog coughing to show their vet, the experts say.

You should also keep an eye out for whether your dog's coughing is paired with any other common symptoms of the mystery canine illness. These include:

  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Lethargy
  • Nasal or eye discharge
  • Rapid or difficulty breathing
  • Blue or purple gums due to lack of oxygen
  • Loss of appetite

If your dog is coughing, McDougall recommends asking your vet for any available testing to help assess what may be causing the cough and inform treatment going forward. (For dogs with the mystery illness, basic tests will come back negative.)

If you have a healthy dog at home, experts recommend keeping it away from other dogs if you can, especially those who seem sick. "Avoid high-traffic dog including boarding, doggy day cares, dog parks, grooming or training classes," says Ganzer.

Dogs should also stay up to date with their vaccines for other illnesses, the experts note.