How to treat a dog with a cold

The common cold – it's a human thing, right? Animals don't catch a cold like we do, surely?

Technically, this is correct: your dog won't fall prey to the same winter colds that you do. However, dogs can catch a series of infectious illnesses that bring with them some pretty similar signs and symptoms.

Let's look into these doggie equivalents of the common cold, what to do if your pet falls ill with them and how pet insurance could help if your dog needs emergency treatment.

Beagle in blanket

My dog seems to be showing cold-like symptoms. What's going on?

Don't panic – this actually isn't all that unusual. First of all, it's worth noting that what your dog seems to be suffering isn't the common cold that plagues so many of us each winter. Most respiratory and cold viruses are species-specific, meaning that they can't be passed from human to animal or vice versa. (An exception has been the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen cases of people infecting their dogs with the virus – as we discussed elsewhere on this blog). 

So – your dog isn't at risk of catching your cold. However, they can contract a somewhat similar illness called kennel cough. This brings with it a range of symptoms, including watery eyes, a runny nose and sneezing, that can seem very similar to the effects of a cold.

Kennel cough often brings with it an additional complaint: a persistent, strident cough. This cough can sound quite alarming – many owners and vets have likened it to the honking of a goose – and it may cause you to worry that your dog has caught something serious. The persistent cough can cause dogs to gag or even vomit, which can be distressing to watch. However, the good news is that kennel cough – which is essentially an infection of the upper airways – rarely lasts long if treated properly.

There may be some cases, which we'll detail below, where some treatment will be necessary – possibly something as minor as a visit to the vet, for an examination and perhaps some canine cough medicine. In one or two more acute cases, as we’ll explain, a visit to a vet could be required. In these instances, you may well be protected, by your pet insurance policy, against some of the treatment costs involved.

Symptoms in detail

Let's run through the symptoms of a canine 'cold' (or kennel cough) in a little more detail. The most common symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of appetite or thirst
  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Coughing – that honking cough we mentioned is particularly associated with kennel cough
  • A general sense of lethargy, of not being their usual active selves
  • Difficulties with breathing
  • Finally, possible fever – although if this is present, this is more likely to be an indicator of flu

My dog hasn't been near a kennel. How have they caught kennel cough?

In reality, although kennels are a prime breeding ground for the condition, your dog can easily succumb to a bout of kennel cough without going anywhere near one of these places.

The condition is caused by a mixture of viruses and bacteria, and is unfortunately highly contagious among dogs. It's typically transferred from one animal to another in droplets of saliva. Unlike our common cold, which is primarily a winter illness, kennel cough can afflict dogs at any time of the year, and in any place where dogs are in close contact with each other.

As its name suggests, boarding kennels can be common incubation grounds for the illness, but dogs can also catch it from each other in the park or anywhere else where they are mixing and socialising. Typically, your dog will start to show symptoms around 10 days after becoming infected.

Dog at vets

Is there any way to prevent my dog from catching kennel cough?

Yes, there are things you can do to minimise your dog's chances of contracting the illness. The most effective way to protect dogs from most strains of kennel cough is by giving them the yearly vaccination against parainfluenza, the disease which produces kennel cough.

They can have their first dose of this from six weeks old. It is administered as nasal drops, and provides protection against the vast majority (around 90%) of the strains of the infection. Check with your pet insurance provider whether your policy covers the cost of these annual vaccinations.

More generally, a good, varied diet and plenty of exercise will both help to keep your pet's immune system strong – meaning they’ll be able to fend off most infections without suffering the worst symptoms.

Can I treat kennel cough at home – or should I take my dog to the vet?

Good question. In fact, there is a lot that you can do at home to treat the infection – and to make sure that your dog isn't suffering too badly. For example, something as simple as making sure they drink lots of water can help to ease off some of the symptoms. A ready supply of fresh, clean water will help to achieve this.

You may also want to give them foods with a high liquid content – such as a beef or chicken broth, for example (make sure these are not too high in sodium).

Bear in mind, too, that your dog’s sense of smell will probably have been diminished by the illness. Given this, they may need stronger-smelling foods to stimulate their appetite and encourage them to eat – especially if their appetite and general energy levels have gone down.

At home, keep your house as well-ventilated and smoke-free as you can, as that will help to reduce your dog's need to cough.

Steam, for its part, can be a much more helpful element in your dog's recovery. If suitable, bring your dog into the bathroom while you take a shower. The steam should help to loosen up the congestion within their sinuses.

You may notice some discharge around your dog’s eyes and nose. Clean this away at least twice a day, and use a warm compress to soften up any dried discharge before removing.

More tips for helping your dog to feel at ease during this time

Elsewhere, excessive barking seems to provoke bouts of coughing, so you can help your dog by giving them as little as possible to bark about. For example, make sure they’re spending most of their time in a quiet spot in the home, and that everything around them is as calm as can be.

Of course, your dog will probably still want – and need – their regular exercise. But you can help here, too. If you can, swap their usual collar for a harness. It seems that pulling on the neck can make the coughing worse for dogs, so if you can remove that discomfort for a while, you'll make things better for him.

And, of course, as kennel cough is an infectious disease, you can do your bit to prevent the infection from spreading by keeping your dog separate from other dogs for the duration of the illness. This may be hard, as most dogs are naturally sociable animals who like to be around others of their kind – but there are ways to make home life stimulating, such as games and dog agility sessions.

If you have other dogs at home, it goes without saying that you should keep a close eye on them during this time, as they may start to develop their own symptoms and need some treatment.

I think my dog has caught kennel cough. Do I need to contact my vet?

In the majority of cases, kennel cough will naturally clear up on its own after a few days.
However, if you find that your dog has been coughing persistently for more than three or four days, it's probably time to ask your vet for some advice. Similar causes for concern here would be a lack of appetite, or outbreaks of vomiting brought on by the coughing.

If the cough is continuing and, for example, not allowing your dog to rest properly, your vet will be able to help – possibly with the prescription of some dedicated canine cough medicine. Be aware that many human medicines are not safe for dogs, and that you will need a canine-specific cough medicine. In all cases, check with your vet before you give your dog medicine of any kind.

The treatment prescribed by your vet will vary according to what seems to be the root cause of the cough's persistence. For example, it may be that a cough suppressant or a course of anti-inflammatory drugs will be sufficient to ease the cough, and to help your dog regain their appetite and/or normal sleeping rhythm. If the vet believes that your dog has contracted an infection in their lungs, a course of antibiotics may be in order.

If your dog has a fever or  high temperature and their breathing seems to be laboured, this suggests that there may be something more than a canine cold at work. There is a possibility, for example, that your dog is developing pneumonia. In this case, a visit to the vet will be necessary, as your pet may need antibiotics and supplemental oxygen therapy.

In anticipation of any eventualities like this, it's worth checking to see whether your existing pet insurance policy covers you against visits to the veterinary hospital. If you’re not sure whether you should go to the vet, policyholders can call our 24-Hour Vet Helpline for advice.

Will my dog suffer any long-term consequences from a bout of kennel cough?

In the vast majority of cases, no. Kennel cough is a fairly widespread illness that will affect large numbers of dogs during their lifetimes. However, the good news is that further problems after the illness period are relatively rare. That honking cough may be particularly persistent for a few days, and continue in total for around a fortnight. After that, most dogs will recover of their own accord, without the need for any treatment.

The one possible area for concern is among older dogs, and/or those already living with a heart or lung disease. In these cases, you should keep a close eye on your pet's recovery – and be ready to speak to your vet about some possible treatments going forward.

Puppy in snow

Could there be other causes behind my dog's sneezing and coughing?

Yes, in fact there are quite a few alternative causes behind a sudden bout of sneezing or coughing in dogs. For example, if your pet starts sneezing very suddenly and dramatically, it's very possible that they have inhaled something, or got something trapped up their nose – some grass or grass seed, for example.

If your dog suffers from allergies, this could also make them sneeze and cough and produce similar cold-like symptoms.

Coughing in dogs can also sometimes be down to a bacterial, parasitic infection like heartworms. Thankfully heart worms are not found in the UK but they could affect your dog if they have recently travelled abroad. As VetsforPets explains, heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes. They are thin, thread-like worms that can grow up to 30cm in length. They live in the right-hand side of your dog’s heart and can cause serious illness and even death if not treated properly.

Don't panic, though, as kennel cough is still a more likely cause, especially if you haven’t taken your dog outside of the UK  – but it will be worth monitoring and, once again, consulting with your vet. If treatment for a heart condition does look necessary, the costs of this treatment may well be covered, entirely or in part, by your specialist cat and dog insurance policy.

Protect yourself from unexpected vet bills with pet insurance

Few things in life are more important to you than your beloved dog's health and wellbeing. A specialist pet insurance policy can help you to give your pup the best care possible, by helping to bear some of the costs of whatever medical treatment may be necessary.

Here at Purely Pets, we are able to offer 15 different levels of lifetime cover. Get a quote today to find the right one for you.