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Are you noticing your dog has a runny nose and a sudden, harsh cough that sounds like a goose honking? There’s a good chance they’re suffering from an upper respiratory infection. You might dismiss a cough as something that will pass in a few days. While this is often the case, these types of infections can spread and lead to serious illness in more vulnerable dogs.

Learning more about the types and symptoms of upper respiratory infections in dogs means you can be proactive about preventing their spread and keeping your dog comfortable.

What Are Upper Respiratory Infections? How Do Dogs Get Them?

Respiratory tract infections can affect any organs and tissue related to a dog’s breathing. Dr. Amy Stone, DVM, is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Florida. “Upper respiratory infections typically focus on nose, sinuses, and tracheal irritation, with lower respiratory infections affecting the bronchi and lungs,” she says.

Typically highly contagious, upper respiratory infections spread via various viral and bacterial pathogens that enter the oral and nasal cavities. Infectious dogs transmit the pathogens when they cough, sneeze, or have nose-to-nose contact with other dogs. This is why rapid spread occurs in daycare, boarding kennels, and shelters.

German Shepherd Dog feeling tired laying down indoors.
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Types of Upper Respiratory Infections in Dogs

Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC), often referred to as kennel cough, is one of the most common conditions veterinarians see in dogs that visit their practices. This disease affecting the respiratory tract has various viral and bacterial pathogenic causes.

Some of the most common pathogens leading to CIRDC “are the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica and viruses such as adenovirus type 1 and parainfluenza,” Dr. Stone says. “Many other organisms can cause many of the same symptoms, such as canine distemper virus, influenza viruses, and other bacteria like Streptococcus zooepidemicus.”

Dr. Stone explains that various bacterial mycoplasmas, canine respiratory coronavirus, and canine herpesvirus can also lead to upper respiratory infections. “However, all of these can also lead to lower respiratory signs if found in combination with other organisms or preexisting conditions,” she says. So, upper respiratory infections are often just a part of a larger problem that impacts the whole respiratory tract.

Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infections in Dogs

Dr. Cooper Brookshire, DVM, is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University. “Most dogs with contagious upper respiratory tract infections have a classic ‘goose honk’ cough. Puppies are prone to developing nasal discharge, as well. Many dogs cough up foamy saliva, which can easily be mistaken for vomiting,” he says.

Other signs can include sneezing, eye discharge, fatigue, lack of appetite, and fever. While symptoms are typically mild, when they do progress, it happens rapidly. Serious complications due to secondary infection, such as pneumonia, are possible. This lung infection can cause labored, noisy, rapid breathing with a cough that becomes moist rather than dry. It needs prompt veterinary care to prevent serious illness or loss of life.

How Long Is a Dog With an Upper Respiratory Infection Contagious?

It’s not uncommon for dogs with highly contagious upper respiratory infections to be asymptomatic. Unfortunately, this means they could inadvertently spread viral or bacterial pathogens to other dogs for as long as two weeks without anyone being aware.

Even if your dog has the honking cough, they will probably have been contagious for a few days before its appearance. Once the symptoms appear, limit your dog to potty breaks in the yard, where possible. Depending on the type of viral or bacterial pathogens involved, it can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months for them for these pathogens to stop being contagious on surfaces.

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“It’s very important to keep your dog away from other dogs while he is sick, and for at least a week after he feels better,” Dr. Brookshire says. That means that they should stay away from other canines for at least a week after all symptoms disappear. Don’t forget that elderly dogs, puppies, and those with underlying health conditions could end up very ill or even die from complications following a serious upper respiratory infection.

Thankfully, most upper respiratory infections are mild and self-limiting and should resolve within a week to 10 days. Plus, the pathogens generally only affect other dogs. Bordetella bronchiseptica can result in illness in humans, but reported cases are exceptionally rare.

What Treatment Is Best for a Dog With an Upper Respiratory Infection?

Most upper respiratory infections in dogs are self-limiting. Supportive care and nominal exercise without medical interventions are standard recommendations for cases with mild symptoms. “This includes cough suppressants, airway moistening therapy (e.g. breathing steam in a small bathroom with the shower running), keeping the eyes and nose clear of mucus crusts, avoiding collars that pull on the neck, and providing fresh water and palatable food,” Dr. Brookshire says.

Viral infections don’t typically respond well to antibiotic treatment. For bacterial infections, “if your dog has other symptoms such as decreased energy, decreased appetite, a significant fever, or problems breathing, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics,” he says.

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For dogs that develop serious complications, like pneumonia, your dog may need to stay in a veterinary hospital for oxygen supplementation, IV antibiotics, and fluids.

How to Prevent Your Dog from Developing an Upper Respiratory Infection

You can never guarantee your dog won’t pick up an upper respiratory infection at some point. However, “regular veterinary wellness visits are the best way to prevent contagious upper respiratory tract infections,” Dr. Brookshire says.

Vaccines are available to boost your dog’s immunity against problematic pathogens. For example, the standard DHPP (or DAPP) core vaccine includes protection against Bordetella (kennel cough) and parainfluenza; also, canine influenza vaccines can be helpful, since infections may start in the upper respiratory area and descend to the pulmonary area. Keeping up to date with your dog’s vaccine schedule offers extra protection.

If you hear about a local CIRDC outbreak in your area, try to avoid areas heavily populated with other dogs.

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.

Related article: Kennel Cough in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment
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