Q: My poodle has a problem with coughing and gagging, and sometimes it seems he can't catch his breath. I took him to a vet, and he said he had kennel cough. What is that? Could it be possible he has asthma, or do dogs not get that?
A: Coughing is a natural response to irritants in the airways, a rush of air that clears dirt, dust, fluids or anything else that blocks free breathing. There's no one cure for chronic coughing -- it's imperative that the source of the coughing be found before proper and effective treatment can begin.
Veterinarians start piecing the puzzle together by determining the nature of the cough. Is it dry or wet, deep or shallow? Are the coughing spells intense, but of short duration, or are they little coughs, scattered throughout the day? During the night, or early in the morning? After exercise, under stress? In a smoke-filled room? Your veterinarian does not live with your pet, so he or she needs your observations to help with the diagnoses.
And there are a lot of problems. Coughing can be associated with parasitic infestations and tumors as well as bacterial, viral and fungal invasions. Generally, any coughing that last longer than 24 hours should be checked out. Here are some common kinds of coughs:
*Kennel cough. Characterized by a dry, bellowing cough, this illness is a contagious infection of the upper airways, so named because it is commonly contracted after a stay in a boarding kennel or shelter.
Kennel cough is caused by several viral and bacterial agents, and the good news is that none is really serious. The treatment involves calming the airways so they can heal, a goal reached through the use of depressants to calm the coughing and environmental changes to settle the dog. If a sick animal sits in the back yard barking all the time, kennel cough can be tough to beat.
There are vaccines available to protect your pet from kennel cough, and it's a good idea to consider them before boarding your pet.
*Heart cough. A cough can be a symptom of heart disease, especially in older animals. An ailing heart will not pump blood properly, causing blood to stagnate in the lungs and fluid to leak into the airways,prompting the animal to cough in an effort to eliminate the accumulation. Such a cough will be wet, and it will be most noticeable after exercise or during the night.
An ailing heart enlarges, putting pressure on the bronchi and causing a gagging and dry cough. The wet cough is a symptom of congestive heart failure, while the dry cough indicates heart enlargement without the onset of any circulation problems -- yet.
The heart cough requires treatment of the heart, not the lungs or airway. With proper diet and medication, a heart problem can be successfully treated for years.
Such a cough can also mean a heartworm infestation, a danger that can be easily avoided by periodic checks for the parasite as well as the regular administration of a heartworm preventive.
*Asthmatic cough. Animals can get allergies, too, and a seasonal dry cough could be the sign that your pet is among the afflicted. Smoke, pollen or dust could trigger a bout of coughing. This kind of cough can be treated through environmental control and allergy medication.
*Foreign-body cough: A foxtail inhaled into the lungs can be a cause of the foreign-body cough. It's a cough that needs to be checked out, since even after the cough is gone, the foxtail may remain.
Animals with a history of sneezing that changes in time to coughing may be harboring a foxtail. When the sneezing stops, the coughing begins -- a sure sign that the foxtail has made its way from the nasal passages into the lungs.
Although there is a possibility that the coughing can expel the invader, it's just as likely that the cessation of coughing means that the foxtail has burrowed its way into another area -- like the spinal column.
*Collapsing trachea. The trachea, or windpipe, is held open by rings of cartilage, material that may be none too strong in some breeds, such as dachshunds and poodles. When the animal is excited, the rings may collapse, provoking a terrifying spell of coughing and gagging as the animal struggles to get air through a blocked passageway.
Although some medications can help open the airway, there's really no permanent cure. Help the animal through the bout by forcing yourself to be calm and working to calm your pet as well. The problem usually will disappear after the animal relaxes.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.