Smudge is a fit, healthy young dog, and when he began to cough occasionally, Robyn didn’t worry too much. A cough is a natural reflex to clear the airways: just as most humans cough from time to time, so do many dogs. But when Smudge started to cough more often, several times an hour, Robyn realised that something unusual must be going on. She talked to her friends, and she heard about a disease called Lungworm that had affected one of their dogs. She decided to bring Smudge up to see me, to make sure that there was nothing sinister going on.
When I examined Smudge, he was in excellent general health, wagging his tail, with clear bright eyes and a spring in his step. Robyn told me his appetite was as good as ever. But as I watched him sniff around my consulting room, he coughed: a deep, rasping sound that was certainly not normal. I listened to his chest with my stethoscope: his lungs sounded clear, and his heart was normal.
There are many possible causes of a cough like this, and it can be difficult to make a definite diagnosis. A detailed work-up might include blood samples, x-rays of the chest and a faeces sample to check for worm eggs. It would be satisfying and fulfilling to investigate every case like this, but it would cost several hundred euro, and it isn’t always necessary. Once a physical examination has ruled out the most severe serious causes of coughing, it’s common for vets to give a simple treatment that’s likely to cure most cases.
In my opinion, there were two likely causes of Smudge’s cough. First, he could have picked up a throat infection. There’s a highly infectious disease called Kennel Cough, caused by a combination of a virus and a bacteria. It would be easy for Smudge to be infected by meeting a dog when out on a walk. Without treatment, he would continue to cough for several weeks, but a course of antibiotics is usually enough to settle the cough down with a few days.
The second most likely cause of the cough was the condition that Robyn had heard about: lungworm. This is exactly what it sounds like: a worm that lives in dogs’ lungs, causing an irritation that makes them cough. Dogs pick this up by eating slugs and snails in the garden. It’s especially common in young dogs like Smudge. Apart from the cough, lungworm also has a thinning effect on the blood, disrupting the normal coagulation processes. I have heard of several dogs in the Dublin area dying suddenly of brain haemorrhages: lungworm was discovered when autopsies were carried out.
Even if dogs have not been seen eating slugs and snails, they often do this in an invisible way, such as by chewing grass which has tiny slugs attached to it. Slugs also like to slither into dog’s bowls if they are left outside, and dogs then accidentally scoff them when eating their dinner.
A workup, including samples being sent to the laboratory, is necessary to diagnose lungworm but this is not always necessary. A simple answer for many cases is simply to give lungworm treatment: special drops are applied to the back of the neck. Smudge hardly noticed as I did this, and if he does have lungworm, they’ll be eradicated within a couple of days. Robyn’s planning to apply a once monthly dose to him from now on, to prevent lungworm in the future.
Smudge stopped coughing within a day of the lungworm treatment and antibiotics starting and he’s back to full health now.
- If a dog coughs more than occasionally, veterinary help is needed
- Kennel cough and lungworm are two common causes
- Simple treatment is usually enough to cure the cough