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How to Know If Your Dog Has a Respiratory Infection

We look at what causes kennel cough, canine influenza, and pneumonia, and how to tell if your dog is sick.

Dr. Marty Becker  |  Feb 23rd 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our February/March issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

I remember as a child that our family dog, a Toy Manchester Terrier named Skeeter, had double pneumonia. As a second grader, I didn’t know what that meant, but hearing the tone of my dad’s and the veterinarian’s voices, seeing Mom’s tears of worry, and witnessing the length of Skeeter’s hospital stay made me realize this condition was serious.

Of course, now as a veteran veterinarian of 35 years, I know double pneumonia means both lungs are infected. I don’t remember whether Skeeter’s pneumonia was bacterial, viral, or fungal, or which drugs were used to treat it (there weren’t many options in veterinary medicine in 1962), but I do know that after a successful treatment and a lot of prayers, Skeeter went from being breathless on a pillow back to chasing squirrels on the farm.

If your dog's nose is running, get her checked out at the vet. Dog's muzzle close up by Shutterstock

If your dog’s nose is running, get her checked out at the vet. (Dog’s muzzle close up by Shutterstock)

What causes it?

In dogs, viral and bacterial infections are most common: kennel cough (a group of respiratory diseases also known as canine cough), canine influenza, and pneumonia. Kennel cough and pneumonia can be viral or bacterial. Canine flu is viral, but dogs with the flu might have a thick nasal discharge that’s usually caused by a secondary bacterial infection; in severe cases, they might have pneumonia that’s due to a secondary bacterial infection. Interesting fact: Dogs can’t catch the common cold from humans or pass their own respiratory illness along to them.

My colleague, Lawren Durocher-Babek, DVM, an internal medicine specialist at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey, said canine influenza (also called dog flu) isn’t as common as kennel cough but is more of a concern because recovery takes longer, and it’s a newer infection, so more dogs are susceptible.

“Most dogs recover uneventfully from the flu and don’t need to be hospitalized, but some dogs, especially those who have a weak immune system, can develop pneumonia and require intensive care,” she said. Dogs can also develop pneumonia if they vomit and aspirate (suck in) the vomit into the lungs.

Listlessness dogs who won't eat should also get a checkup. Vet with dog by Shutterstock

Listlessness in dogs who won’t eat should also get a checkup. (Vet with dog by Shutterstock)

Fungal infections are more common in some areas of the country than others. Depending on where you live, you might have heard them called valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) in the Southwest desert or “blasto” (short for blastomycosis) in the Midwest. They are serious and can be fatal. Dogs can get fungal infections by inhaling the spores, often while they’re digging or following a trail, or if it’s windy where they live. The spores can also enter through the skin, by way of air or water.

Is my dog sick?

So how do you know if your dog might have a respiratory infection? Here are some early signs:

Nasal discharge. My 15-year-old Golden Retriever, Shakira, has a history of respiratory infections. I notice that she gets a sticky, clear discharge from her nose before it becomes more opaque. This typically means infection.

In puppies, nasal discharge could signal canine distemper, but the vaccine for that disease is very good, so it’s a disease that we see more commonly in shelter dogs and unvaccinated dogs than in most pet dogs.

Cough. Think a dry, hacking sound, not the wet, productive cough that produces phlegm like humans might have with a cold. Coughs can also be caused by heartworm disease, congestive heart failure, collapsing trachea, and other conditions, so a veterinary visit and accurate diagnosis are important.

Panting. You might notice your dog’s respiration rate has increased or she can’t complete a walk as normal, or she stands like a statue, breathing with her mouth open.

Listlessness. Hundreds of times over in my career, dogs who ended up being diagnosed with pneumonia were brought in because they had little energy or weren’t eating.

Breathing issues. Dogs with respiratory infections can have difficulty breathing. That’s especially true for brachycephalic dogs, the short-nosed breeds that already have trouble breathing, said Raelynn Farnsworth, DVM, who teaches at my alma mater, Washington State University. “They have breathing issues anyway because their nose’s openings are so small,” she said. “If they’re stuffy or inflamed in their nose or throat area, it makes it even worse for them.”

You might be surprised to learn that sneezing isn’t typically a sign of respiratory infection in dogs. Instead, it signals other problems, such as foreign bodies stuck in the nasal passages, rhinitis, sinusitis, nasal mites (yuck!), or nasal tumors.

Be concerned if your dog has a thick mucus discharge from his eyes or nose, can’t catch his breath, is coughing so badly that it is keeping him (and you) up at night, or isn’t eating. Those are all signs that he needs to see the veterinarian, especially if the signs have continued for 24 to 48 hours.

Depending on the signs, your veterinarian may listen to the chest with a stethoscope, take radiographs (X-rays), or do a wash — introducing sterile fluid into the chest, then sucking it back out again to culture it for bacteria to see if the problem is infectious or inflammatory.

Your vet may order X-rays if your dog has breathing issues. Vet examines dog's X-ray by Shutterstock

Your vet may order X-rays if your dog has breathing issues. (Vet examines dog’s X-ray by Shutterstock)

How do dogs get it?

Dogs who might be more susceptible to respiratory infections are those who are already sick, or who have weak immune systems, such as very young or very old dogs. At highest risk are dogs who spend a lot of time with other dogs at parks, boarding kennels, or dog shows.

My pal Tony Johnson, DVM, chief medical officer for the Veterinary Information Network, made a good point about exposure in these places: Your dog picking up kennel cough at a kennel or at the veterinary clinic isn’t a reflection of how good the place is. “It’s like a kid getting the sniffles at daycare,” he said. “It’s going to happen. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad daycare.”

Out of courtesy to other dogs, keep your sick dog home and away from dog parks and boarding kennels until he is no longer coughing or exhibiting other signs of respiratory disease.

How is it treated?

Treatment may involve antibiotics or cough suppressants. You don’t want to give cough suppressants if there’s any suspicion that the dog has pneumonia, though. With pneumonia, Dr. Johnson said, that cough serves a purpose: to get the gunk out. Dogs with severe cases that progress to pneumonia might need hospitalization and intravenous fluids. For less severe infections, all your dog might need is time and tender loving care (make sure he is eating and drinking).

Your dog may need antibiotics to get rid of the infection. Vet examines dog with stethoscope by Shutterstock

Your dog may need antibiotics to get rid of the infection. (Vet examines dog with stethoscope by Shutterstock)

How do I keep my dog safe?

Respiratory infections can be worrying, and you should try to catch them in their earliest phase. If you have ever had the breath knocked out of you, you know that panicked feeling of not being able to breathe. Many of us have seasonal allergies that make it difficult to breathe or asthma that causes a struggle for a single breath. Pets, too, are anxious, stressed, and fearful when they can’t breathe, but they can’t talk, so the earliest symptoms are often missed.

To protect your dog, vaccines for kennel cough and canine flu are a good idea, especially if he is frequently around other dogs. The vaccines are not 100 percent effective, Dr. Farnsworth noted, but they should decrease the likelihood that your dog picks up one of these illnesses as well as the severity of disease if he does get sick.

If you hear of an outbreak of respiratory illnesses in your area, try to keep your dog away from other dogs, she said. So far, canine flu seems to occur primarily in the Midwest, but it could gradually spread.

Good preventive care, including vaccinations and regular wellness checks, will help keep your dog healthy so he is better able to fight off any infections that come his way.

Read more by Dr. Marty Becker:

About the author: Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. The author of 24 books, Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the American Humane Association, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent; a founding member of Core Team Oz for The Dr. Oz Show; and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. When his schedule allows, he practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital. Connect with him on Facebook, YouTube,Pinterest,Twitter, and Google Plus.