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Does My Dog Have a Cold?

Cold symptoms such as sneezing coughing, nasal discharge, fever and lethargy are fairly common in dogs. Conditions arising from different organs systems can cause similar symptoms. Veterinarians use historical findings, symptoms and the results of diagnostic testing to determine the location and cause of the condition.

An important part of reaching the proper diagnosis and treatment plan is to determine the source of the problem. Dogs with cold-like symptoms could have nasal disease, upper respiratory conditions, lower respiratory conditions, heart disease or a systemic condition.  It will be helpful for your veterinarian to know if your dog was recently boarded or travels, if there is sneeze or cough, if there is nasal discharge or trouble breathing as well as the duration of the symptoms. Findings on examination such as temperature, heart /lung sounds and nasal discharge will be helpful. Diagnostic testing by the primary care veterinarian often includes routine blood work and x-rays. A swab, culture or tracheal wash is sometimes needed.

Dogs do suffer from upper respiratory infections. Many of these dogs will have symptoms similar to humans with upper respiratory infections; however transmission from dogs to humans or vice versa is not expected. The more common infections are viral and bacterial. Kennel cough is a broad definition of infections of the nose and throat, but is most commonly associated with Bordetella bronchiseptica. This infection is very contagious and often seen after boarding or in dogs adopted from kennels. Canine influenza “dog flu” has received a lot of media attention in recent years and often occurs in clusters. Vaccination is available for both of these conditions.  Some infections such as distemper have been largely prevented by routine vaccination. Most infections are well treated by medications.

Infection can cause problems in the lower respiratory tract as well. Dogs can develop pneumonia as either a primary or a secondary condition. Pneumonia can be caused by viral, bacterial, parasitic or fungal infections. Pneumonia may resolve with medications alone or may need treatment in the hospital with oxygen and IV medications.

Infection is not the only type of lower respiratory condition to cause cold-like symptoms. Canines experience other respiratory conditions including inflammatory conditions similar to asthma or neoplasia that can present with a cough. Other conditions such as pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), pleural effusion or structural conditions (diaphragmatic hernia, tracheal collapse) can also cause a cough or respiratory symptoms. These “other” conditions are often discovered on x-ray and one of reasons an x-ray is often recommended.

Some conditions may need the help of specialists. Specialists are trained in a single discipline and help the primary care veterinarian with diagnosis and treatment of particular conditions. If nasal disease, pneumonia or a mass is present then advanced imaging (ultrasound, skull radiographs, CT scan) and/or scoping with an Internal Medicine specialist may be recommended. If heart disease is of concern (murmur, pulmonary edema) then consultation with a cardiologist may be recommended.

Cold symptoms can occur due to many different conditions, but your veterinary team will determine the problem and treatment plan through a careful review of history, thorough examination and systematic evaluation.