Chronic coughing or gagging in dogs and cats
Persistent coughing or gagging is one of the most common questions I get from both canine and feline animal guardians. With our feline companions, many clients often assume that this is due to hairballs. And while hairballs can be a cause of coughing in cats, there are certainly many other possible causes of a feline extending their neck and repeatedly coughing. Amongst these are feline allergic airway disease (otherwise known as feline asthma), feline heartworm disease, bacterial, viral or other parasitic infections, airway or throat obstructions, and various chest cavity illnesses including infections of the chest cavity (called pyothorax), leaking lymphatic and/or blood vessels of the chest cavity (called chylothorax), and in older cats cancer of the chest.
The biggest mistake feline guardians make in chronic coughing cats is assuming that the signs are due to hairballs and they simply give more Petromalt or Laxatone, while the disease process worsens over time. In order to differentiate these many causes in cats it is important to have full veterinary evaluation on any chronically coughing cat, including full CBC/chem/thyroid/heartworm blood panels, as well as testing for feline serology to viruses such as FeLV/FIV, FIP, as well as testing for toxoplasmosis. Stool samples should be checked as well for parasites sometimes involved in coughing pets.
Of course chest x-rays are also part of this minimum data base in a chronically coughing cat. I also want to state that most coughing cats DON’T have heart disease, other than the possibility of heartworms in cats, which we are just increasingly starting to recognize. In order for veterinarians to be on top of this problem before it occurs, it is important for guardians to understand that coughing could mean more than just hairballs. The act of coughing brings up a whole different list of possible diagnoses that need to be worked through, versus a cat that is retching and vomiting, although there can be some overlap of possibilities in both of these cases.
As for dogs with a chronic cough, certainly infectious viral and bacterial diseases are possible. However, more common causes of chronic coughing in dogs can include inflammatory or allergic airway disease, anatomic problems of airways (both of these commonly known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD), parasitic problems, including heartworm infection, heart disease (especially in older dogs). It’s not usually worth it for clients to self treat middle age and older pets at home for chronic coughs longer than a few weeks duration, because thorough workups are needed so that your veterinarian can come up with a correct diagnosis and the best therapeutic plan.