Why is my dog coughing like something is stuck in his throat?
Healthy Pet

Why Does My Elderly Dog Cough and Gag?

If you’ve got a dog that suddenly starts coughing and gagging, there are some possible reasons why this could be happening. A dog will have the occasional cough or sneeze from time to time. If your dog coughs excessively, or if you notice blood, phlegm, or puss coming up from your dog’s throat, it’s time to take action.

Why is my dog coughing so much?

Many underlying causes can show up as coughing in dogs. Some are very mild and will resolve in a few minutes with no treatment. Other causes are more urgent but easily treatable. More serious cases may require surgery or other aggressive treatment.

Respiratory infections

There is a long list of potential respiratory infections that can cause respiratory symptoms. Here are a few examples:

  • Viruses: Kennel cough for example is highly contagious. Like a cold virus in humans, it will usually run its course in a few days. It is a bigger concern in very young and immunocompromised dogs. Vaccines are available to prevent it.
  • Bacteria: Bronchitis for example is often caused by bacteria and is usually treatable with antibiotics.
  • Fungi: Pneumocystis for example is more of a concern for immunocompromised pets and is treatable with antifungal medications.
  • Parasites: Heartworm for example is a parasitic infection, transmitted by mosquitos, whereby adult worms live inside the heart chambers and can cause coughing. This is treatable with antiparasitic medications. Preventative medication is recommended.

Foreign objects

There are many objects, large and small, that can become lodged in your dog’s nasal cavity, trachea, or lungs.

  • Natural objects like dust or pollen: Usually this is something small enough that will become trapped in the mucus that lines the respiratory tract and can be expelled without treatment. Some grass seeds, like foxtail, have tiny barbs that make it very difficult for a dog to dislodge it naturally by coughing and it can cause significant damage to the soft tissue of the respiratory tract.
  • Food: Food can become lodged in the larynx or trachea and cause coughing, wheezing, or gagging.
  • Toys: You and your dog may not always agree on what is an appropriate chew toy, but anything your dog chews on, whole or in part, can find its way into the respiratory tract.


Many items around our homes and yards can be irritating or toxic to our canine companions.

  • Rat poison: This is a common product used to keep rodent populations under control. It is meant to be tasty to rodents, but if dogs find it, they may eat it as well. It causes internal bleeding and possibly coughing, among other symptoms.
  • Aerosols: Household cleaners and grooming products are the most common aerosols that your dog may be exposed to.
  • Smoke: Fireplaces, barbecue pits, and cigarette smoke are all potentially dangerous to your pet. Besides the smoke itself, ash can be an irritant also.

Chronic illnesses

A multitude of illnesses may cause respiratory symptoms in your dog. Here are just a few:

  • Heart Disease: Congestive heart failure can cause coughing and wheezing symptoms.
  • Allergies: Grass and food allergies are common in dogs and can show up as respiratory symptoms.
  • Collapsed trachea: More often seen in smaller breeds, the cartilage in the trachea can break down and obstruct the airway.
  • Laryngeal paralysis: This is a disease of nerve tissue that causes dysfunction in the throat.
  • Cancer: Abnormal growth of tissue anywhere in the respiratory tract can cause a physical obstruction.

As you can see, respiratory symptoms can be a difficult issue to diagnose because there are so many potential causes. Symptoms can be further complicated by age, chronic illnesses, and obesity.

When should I take my coughing dog to the vet?

Ideally, a dog should have regular veterinary visits to monitor his health and get the vaccines that are recommended to treat diseases in dogs.  If your dog is experiencing any respiratory distress or exhibiting unusual symptoms, it may be time for an urgent visit to the clinic.

In addition to respiratory symptoms, if you notice any of the following symptoms, please consult a veterinarian immediately:

  • Lethargy: If your dog isn’t interested in playing or going outside, as usual, it could be a sign of low oxygenation.
  • Swelling: If your dog’s face or muzzle is swollen, this could be an allergic reaction and may include swelling in the throat.
  • Discoloredgums: Gently pull up your dog’s lip. Normally the tissue will be bright pink. If it is white, very pale, gray, or purple, this could be a sign of poor circulation or poor oxygenation.
  • Bleeding: If you notice bleeding around the eyes, nose, ears, or mouth, this could be a sign of toxicity from rat poison.

Any information that you can provide to your veterinarian can be helpful, but be prepared with the following details:

  • When did the symptoms start?
  • Is your dog getting better or worse?
  • Could your dog have been exposed to toxins such as rat poison?
  • Is your dog experiencing other symptoms? This may include:
    • Unusual behaviors
    • Drinking water and urinating excessively
    • Avoiding food and water

If you can record a short video of your dog exhibiting symptoms of coughing, wheezing, or gagging, that could prove invaluable to the treatment of your pet.

Be aware that your veterinarian will need to perform an exam and will likely need to perform tests to make a diagnosis. These tests could include:

  • X-rays: May show obstructions.
  • Bloodwork: May help determine toxicity or infection.
  • Fecal exam: May show parasitic infection or internal bleeding.
  • Urinalysis: May show toxicity.
  • Ecg: May show abnormalities in the heart.
  • Echocardiogram: Another method of looking at heart function.

Monitor your coughing dog closely because they can be fatal if ignored. If you have any doubt about the health of your canine companion, consult your veterinarian, and your dog will reward you for years to come with exuberant greetings, wet kisses, and of course, loyalty.

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