Most dogs eat so fast they easily would be top dog in the July Fourth Coney Island hot dog eating competition. That’s enough to make anyone cough. But coughing sometimes happens even when dogs eat slowly. So is your dog coughing after eating? There can be several reasons — some benign, some worrisome.
A dog coughing after eating or drinking is common. Not surprisingly, the cause usually is eating or drinking too quickly.
“Some dogs will drink or eat large amounts at once and then regurgitate,” says Laurie Bergman, VMD, a veterinarian with NorthStar VETS in Robbinsville, New Jersey. “This isn’t usually a concern unless it’s happening very frequently.”
Speed-eating and food-guarding can be instinctive holdovers from the dog’s wild canid ancestors, who often were ravenous after a hunt and needed to eat quickly to protect their food from other predators. Even in a home environment where dogs are handed meals at regular times, the phrase “wolf down food” can be apt.
And other factors could be at play. “Enthusiastic eating might be competitive eating behaviors that developed as puppies or related to other dogs in the household,” says Jillian Marie Haines, DVM, an assistant professor at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, Washington.
“The bigger concern is if we see this behavior as indicative of a dog who is anxious,” says Dr. Bergman. “If that is the reason why the dog is gulping down food, then there is a quality-of-life issue.”
Dr. Haines agrees. “Causes of eating or drinking too fast may include general anxiety disorders or resource-guarding behaviors,” says Dr. Haines. “These behaviors could therefore imply an underlying behavioral issue and could also be associated with aggressive behaviors.”
A behaviorist can help. “The dog can be re-trained to eat at a normal pace,” says Leticia Fanucchi, DVM, PhD, a behaviorist and clinical instructor at Washington State’s veterinary college. She notes that not all dogs who eat fast are anxious but advises to be aware of your dog’s eating habits. “Some behavior disorders can cause medical conditions,” Dr. Fanucchi says.
Indeed, if a dog gulps food, not only is he chewing improperly, he’s likely also swallowing large amounts of air (known as aerophagia). This can suck food into the lungs, which can cause coughing and lead to bacterial infection and pneumonia. Additionally, digestive problems, hiccups and burping can result.
“It can also cause flatulence, which can be unpleasant to those sharing the household,” Dr. Haines says.
In some cases, the culprit could be an underlying health issue. “Medical reasons should be ruled out, especially if the dog is really gagging, losing weight or it’s more than an occasional cough,” says Dr. Bergman, an American College of Veterinary Behaviorists diplomate. “These can include neurological problems affecting the ability to swallow, anatomical problems and upper-respiratory infections.”
The most common medical reasons involve the esophagus, trachea and larynx. Diseases of the esophagus can slow the movement of food and water to the stomach or cause it to stay within the esophagus or be regurgitated. Tracheal collapse can cause coughing depending on the severity and location. And a malfunctioning larynx might not close as it should to protect the airways during eating and drinking, Dr. Haines says. Obstruction, throat irritation, allergies and heart disease also can cause coughing.
Every dog is different, and not all dogs eat quickly or cough after consumption. Still, it’s best to keep an eye on your dog while he eats and drinks. If coughing becomes frequent or comes on suddenly, visit your veterinarian.
“Depending on the cause, if a medical condition is found, treatment may include surgery, medications or lifestyle changes,” Dr. Haines says. “I have certainly seen dogs with a chronic cough that responded rapidly to medical treatment, and their cough completely resolved within a couple weeks.”
There are ways to slow down a chow hound and a dog coughing after eating or drinking.
“The first step is to make sure that the dog isn’t feeling threatened during a meal,” Dr. Bergman says. “A good starting point is to feed the dog alone. Keep others (dogs, sometimes all other pets, sometimes people, as well) out of the area when the dog eats. For some dogs, this means going as far as feeding in a room by themselves with the door closed.”
Dr. Haines also suggests raising dishes off the floor. “Some medical issues, such as esophageal disease, may improve with offering food or water from an elevated bowl,” she says.
Bowls designed to spread out food or scatter it around obstacles discourage devouring, as do puzzle toys that slowly dispense kibble in response to something the dog does, such as rolling the toy or pushing a button. Stuffing wet food in a hollow toy and freezing it also makes the meal last longer.
“These have the added advantage of being enrichment for the dog,” Dr. Bergman says. “Feeding in ways that make the dogs work, we’re not just slowing down how they eat, but we’re giving them some mental and physical exercise.”
Any dog can experience coughing (or making honking, wheezing or gagging sounds) during or after eating or drinking. However, that behavior can be a sign of conditions or diseases to which some dogs are more prone.
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St. Louis-based freelance writer Martha M. Everett has lived on both coasts covering everything from Washington to Westminster. She has written for Nestlé Purina PetCare publications and is a former managing editor of Dog Fancy magazine.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!