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My dog has recently started to cough after exercise. I walk him in grassy fields, but I don’t think he’s picked up anything.

James Farrell advises…

A sudden start in coughing may be due to the dog inhaling foreign material. I once took a huge cluster of grass seeds out of a spaniel’s airway – it was lodged at the division of his trachea after he had been sniffing in a field. So, checking that the cough is not caused by a foreign object is important. If your dog will let you, look inside the mouth and under the tongue.

To find foreign material further in, a trip to the vet will be necessary, and sometimes general anaesthesia to examine the airway, X-ray the chest and use an endoscopic camera to check further down the windpipe. If your dog chases sticks, these can cause injury down the throat, causing a cough. It’s better to use toys rather than sticks for play.

Allergies could be another cause, and characteristics within a dog’s blood sample may suggest this, as will other signs, such as general itchiness and redness of the skin.

Infectious causes include the dreaded kennel cough – so called because it is very contagious and spreads through dogs who are housed together. Some boarding kennels insist a dog has a specific vaccine against kennel cough before admission. The vaccine is recommended anyway, as dogs will transmit kennel cough to each other if they meet on a walk in the park. It produces a characteristic harsh cough or retch – as if “something is stuck in his throat” owners often say.

Lungworm is prevalent in some parts of the country and dogs often pick them up after eating slugs and snails, which carry them. Regular worming treatment with appropriate medication will prevent this.

In older dogs, the most likely explanation for a cough brought on by exercise is a failing heart. This is because the heart gets less efficient as a dog gets older. Usually, small breeds get leaky valves and large breeds get weaker heart muscles. Diagnosis at the vet’s starts with a good listen to the heart and lungs, and feeling the pulse (on the inside of the thigh). X-rays, ultrasound and an ECG (trace of the electrical beat of the heart) are required to get more information. The cough is caused by fluid collecting in the lungs due to poor circulation. Usually a vet will start treatment with a combination of drugs including diuretics – to get rid of the fluid on the lungs – and medication to increase heart strength and action. Often dogs will live for years on well-managed medication and regular check-ups, and still have an excellent quality of life.

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