Old Dog Coughing and Gagging: 12 Causes

Coughing and gagging in senior dogs can be caused by age-related changes in the respiratory system, environmental factors, allergens, and underlying health conditions. 

It is challenging to determine the exact cause of the condition, so to help you understand related symptoms we will talk about 12 causes of an old dog coughing and gagging. 

As always we are here to help you prepare for a vet visit. 

Cough vs. Gag vs. Vomit 

A cough is a sound made by the dog when it is forcefully exhaling air from its throat and mouth, which can be a symptom of respiratory issues, allergies, or heart problems. 

Gagging, on the other hand, is similar to vomiting, but nothing comes out of the mouth, except perhaps a little phlegm or mucus. 

Gagging may occur in conjunction with coughing and can be a sign of issues such as respiratory problems, heart issues, or even gastrointestinal problems. 

Vomiting is the actual act of expelling food or other stomach contents through the mouth and may indicate digestive or other issues such as kidney or liver disease.

Different Types of Coughs

  • Dry Cough: A dry cough is a hacking cough that doesn’t produce any mucus or phlegm. It can be caused by allergies, irritation, or a foreign object stuck in the throat 
  • Wet Cough: A wet cough is a cough that produces phlegm or mucus. It can be a symptom of lower airway or lung problems such as pneumonia or congestive heart failure
  • Honking Cough: A honking cough is a deep, honking cough that sounds like a goose honking. It can be a sign of tracheal collapse, which is a condition that occurs when the cartilage rings around the trachea weaken and collapse.
  • Gagging Cough: A gagging cough is a retching sort of sound that can indicate a problem with the throat or esophagus. It may occur in conjunction with a cough or on its own.
  • Reverse Sneezing: Reverse sneezing is a respiratory event that is not actually a cough, but can be mistaken for one. It occurs when a dog inhales rapidly, making a snorting or honking noise. It is usually harmless, but if it occurs frequently, it can be a sign of an underlying issue
  1. Weakening of the muscles that support the respiratory system. This weakening can cause difficulty in breathing, and your dog may struggle to clear their throat. 
  2. The cough reflex weakens over time, leading to frequent coughing episodes.
  3. Development of respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis or pneumonia. These conditions can cause inflammation in the airways, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing.

Health Conditions Linked to Coughing and Gagging 

  1. Heart disease
  2. Respiratory infections 
  3. Environmental Factors and Allergens
  4. Cancer
  5. Pulmonary Edema
  6. Pneumonia
  7. Kennel Cough
  8. Tracheal Collapse
  9. Laryngeal paralysis
  10. Chronic bronchitis (COPD)
  11. Canine influenza
  12. Digestive issues

1. Heart disease

When the heart isn’t functioning properly, it can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing.

Heart disease can cause coughing that may follow exercise or excitement. This type of cough may be accompanied by a murmur or abnormal heart rate or rhythm. 

Small-breed dogs, particularly middle-aged to older ones, are more likely to have heart disease.

Determining the underlying cause of coughing in senior dogs can be challenging, but the chronic cough can occur secondary to cardiac and respiratory disease or both. 

Cardiac causes include: 

  • left-sided congestive heart failure 
  • advanced heartworm disease, among others 

To diagnose coughing and gagging in senior dogs with heart disease, a veterinarian may perform several physical tests, such as a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram. These tests can help determine the condition or severity of the coughing and gagging symptoms.

Treatment may involve addressing the underlying condition causing the cough, as well as medications such as cough suppressants and antibiotics as necessary. 

If heart disease is the underlying cause, treatment may also include medications to manage heart function and reduce fluid buildup in the lungs.

2. Respiratory infections 

Infections can be bacterial, viral, or fungal and can cause inflammation and irritation in the airways.

Infectious agents can cause upper or lower respiratory infections in dogs, resulting in clinical signs that can range from mild dyspnea to severe pneumonia with systemic manifestations 

These pathogens may continue to reside in the respiratory tract of convalescent animals, and when stressed, these animals may relapse and act as a source of infection for others.

3. Environmental Factors and Allergens

Environmental factors can also contribute to coughing and gagging in dogs. 

For example, exposure to cigarette smoke can irritate the respiratory system and cause coughing. 

Exposure to chemicals, such as cleaning products or pesticides, can also cause respiratory irritation and coughing.

Pollen or dust, can also be a significant contributor to coughing and gagging in dogs. If your dog is allergic to these substances, they may experience symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, and watery eyes.

4. Cancer

Some of the common cancers that can cause coughing and gagging in senior dogs include 

  • lung cancer
  • airway cancers such as hemangiosarcoma 
  • mast cell tumor
  • osteosarcoma 
  • melanoma

Esophageal tumors, though rare, can also cause coughing and gagging in senior dogs. These tumors can be benign or malignant and occur mostly in the upper esophagus in cats and the lower esophagus in dogs.

Not all dogs with cancer will exhibit coughing and gagging as a symptom. In some cases, cancer can cause weight loss, lethargy, labored breathing, poor appetite, reduced exercise tolerance, rapid breathing, wheezing, vomiting or regurgitation, fever, and lameness.

Early detection and treatment can improve the outcome of many types of cancer in dogs.

5. Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema is an accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

Common causes of pulmonary edema in dogs include heart disease, circulatory disorders, allergies, infectious diseases, exposure to toxins, and head trauma. 

In senior dogs, heart disease is a particularly common cause of pulmonary edema.

The vet will conduct a thorough physical examination, including blood tests and X-rays, to determine the underlying cause of the condition. 

Treatment options may include medication, oxygen therapy, and addressing the underlying cause of the condition, such as heart disease or infection.

6. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs that results in respiratory disturbance, and it can affect dogs of any age, including senior dogs. 

Common causes of pneumonia in dogs include bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic, or protozoal infections, as well as aspiration of vomit or improperly administered medication.

Senior dogs are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia due to their weaker immune systems and the presence of underlying health conditions such as heart or kidney disease. 

Signs of pneumonia in senior dogs can include difficulty breathing, coughing, decreased exercise tolerance, lethargy, nasal discharge, loud breathing, rapid breathing, weight loss, anorexia, and dehydration.

Your vet will likely perform a physical exam, listen to your dog’s lungs with a stethoscope, and may run diagnostic tests such as blood work, radiographs, or other imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis. 

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause and severity of pneumonia but may include antibiotics, supportive care such as oxygen therapy, and management of any underlying health conditions.

7. Kennel Cough

Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC), known as kennel cough or infectious tracheobronchitis, is a highly contagious respiratory disease in dogs. 

It is commonly contracted in places where dogs gather, such as kennels, dog shows, and grooming facilities, dog parks, etc.

Symptoms of kennel cough include a dry, hacking cough, retching, and gagging. 

The cough can be triggered by excitement, exercise, or pressure on the trachea.

Kennel cough is usually not a serious disease, it can take up to 6 weeks for older dogs or those with other medical conditions to recover completely. 

In senior dogs, kennel cough may exacerbate underlying health conditions and can be more difficult to treat.

Prevention of kennel cough in dogs includes immunization with modified-live virus vaccines against distemper, parainfluenza, and CAV-2, which also provides protection against CAV-1. 

Commercial products frequently combine these agents and may include modified-live parvovirus and leptospiral antigens. 

Keeping your dog away from other dogs that are exhibiting symptoms of respiratory illness can help prevent the spread of kennel cough.

8. Tracheal Collapse

Tracheal collapse is a chronic respiratory disease that can affect dogs of any age, but it is more common in toy and small breed dogs such as Yorkshire Terriers, Pomeranians, and Toy Poodles that are middle-aged or older. 

The condition occurs when the cartilage rings in the trachea weaken and start to flatten, causing breathing problems and chronic coughing.

Severely affected dogs are usually recognized at a young age, but less severely affected dogs may not demonstrate signs until a middle or older age. The severity of the collapse may be largely affected by genetics.

While there is no cure for tracheal collapse, ongoing medical management can improve clinical signs and quality of life in senior dogs. 

Treatment options may include weight loss, the use of a harness instead of a collar, medication to manage coughing and inflammation, and in some cases, surgery. 

9. laryngeal paralysis

Laryngeal paralysis is a disease of the upper airway. This condition occurs when the cartilage of the larynx does not open and close normally during respiration, leading to difficulty breathing. 

Large and giant breeds of dogs, such as Labrador Retrievers, Irish Setters, and Great Danes, are particularly predisposed to this condition.

The signs of laryngeal paralysis in dogs include a dry cough, voice changes, and noisy breathing that progresses to marked difficulty in breathing with stress and exertion. Regurgitation and vomiting may also occur. 

The progression of clinical signs is usually slow, taking months to years before respiratory distress is evident.

To diagnose laryngeal paralysis, your veterinarian will need to perform a thorough physical and neurological exam and may recommend chest and neck X-rays. 

Your veterinarian may also sedate your dog to visualize its larynx and the functionality of the cartilage/muscles when they open and close. DNA genetic tests are available for some breeds predisposed to congenital laryngeal paralysis.

Surgical correction is often very successful at reducing or eliminating clinical signs of laryngeal paralysis, and your veterinarian will discuss the anesthetic concerns and the specific surgical technique with you prior to surgery. 

Patients with laryngeal paralysis are at slightly increased risk of anesthetic complications.

10. Chronic bronchitis (COPD)

Chronic bronchitis is a condition characterized by inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which transport air to and from the lungs. 

It is a common respiratory disease in dogs, particularly in senior dogs. COPD is often used interchangeably with chronic bronchitis in dogs, and it refers to a group of respiratory conditions that cause difficulty breathing.

The signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis in senior dogs include coughing that may or may not be productive, wheezing, and labored breathing. 

The cough may be exacerbated by exercise, excitement, or exposure to allergens or irritants 

The diagnosis of chronic bronchitis in senior dogs is usually based on a physical examination and a thorough health history. A veterinarian may also perform diagnostic tests, such as chest X-rays, blood tests, and bronchoscopy, to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible causes of coughing.

Treatment of chronic bronchitis in senior dogs involves managing the symptoms and addressing the underlying cause of the disease. This may include medications such as bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and antibiotics, as well as environmental modifications to reduce exposure to allergens and irritants. 

In some cases, a change in diet and weight management may also be recommended to improve breathing.

11. Canine influenza

Canine influenza (CIV) is a highly contagious respiratory virus that can affect dogs of all ages and breeds, including senior dogs. 

CIV is caused by specific Type A influenza viruses known to infect dogs, and there are two strains of the virus identified in dogs: 

  • H3N8 
  • H3N2 

The symptoms of CIV in dogs can range from mild to severe, including coughing, sneezing, fever, nasal discharge, and lethargy.

While senior dogs can be particularly vulnerable to CIV due to their weakened immune systems, the good news is that CIV doesn’t commonly cause death in dogs and, for many, won’t even necessitate a trip to the veterinarian. 

However, senior dogs with preexisting health conditions, such as heart or respiratory disease, may be at higher risk for complications from CIV and should be monitored closely.

There is no cure for CIV, and treatment is typically supportive, such as providing fluids and medications to manage symptoms. 

Infected dogs should be isolated to prevent the spread of the virus to other dogs. Vaccines are available for both strains of CIV and can be recommended by your veterinarian to protect your senior dog from contracting the virus.

12. Digestive issues 

The common digestive problem in dogs is gastroenteritis, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea in addition to gagging and coughing. 

Other possible causes of gagging and coughing in senior dogs include constipation, which can lead to discomfort and difficulty passing stool, and gastric dilation volvulus (GDV), a severe condition where the dog’s stomach twists and can cause blockage of blood flow to other organs.

Acid reflux can cause gagging and coughing in senior dogs. Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus and irritates the lining. 

The most effective way to diagnose acid reflux in dogs is through an endoscopy, where a small camera is used to examine the lining of the esophagus and gastrointestinal tract.

Symptoms of acid reflux in dogs include empty swallowing, decreased or increased appetite, vomiting bile, retching, burping or gagging, and bad breath coming from the stomach. In senior dogs, acid reflux may also present with coughing as a symptom.

Acid reflux in dogs can be caused by underlying conditions such as hiatal hernias, pancreatitis, or inflammatory bowel disease. Your vet can help determine the underlying cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Some of these digestive issues can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. Your vet may recommend diagnostic tests such as bloodwork or imaging to evaluate the dog’s condition and determine the best course of treatment.

Home Remedies and Supportive Care

When you have the diagnosis and medical care, there are things you can do to help fasten the recovery and make your dog comfortable.

Please consult your vet if these are good for your dog’s specific case, we are going to include general information. 

  • Air humidifiers can help to ease your dog’s cough, especially if the dog has breathing difficulties.
  • Honey has natural antibacterial properties and can help to soothe the throat, while herbal teas can help to reduce inflammation and calm the cough.
  • A clean environment can help to reduce the number of irritants in the air
  • Water and fluids can help to keep their throat moist and reduce coughing
  • Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. Obesity can put additional strain on a dog’s respiratory system, making it harder for them to breathe and increasing the likelihood of coughing and gagging.
  • Consider switching to high-quality, senior-specific dog food that is designed to meet the unique nutritional needs of older dogs. These foods are often easier to digest and can help improve overall health and wellness.

The key to managing coughing and gagging in senior dogs is to stay vigilant about your dog’s health and seek veterinary help when necessary. With proper care and treatment, your old furry friend can continue to live a happy, comfortable life by your side.