Why Does My Dog Only Cough And Gag At Night?

It’s common for dog owners to notice their dogs coughing and gagging, especially at night. This choking or hacking sound can be alarming and concerning when it wakes you and your dog up in the middle of the night. Though it may sound serious, nighttime coughing and gagging in dogs can have several explanations.

Coughing and gagging in dogs at night tends to occur when dogs are relaxed and sleeping. During sleep, muscles in the throat relax, which can allow issues like collapsing trachea, allergies, kennel cough and more to manifest in coughing and gagging episodes. Dogs may also cough and gag at night due to postnasal drip or acid reflux issues that worsen when lying down.

While coughing and gagging can indicate serious issues like heart disease, there are also many benign causes like kennel cough or allergies. By understanding the common reasons why dogs gag and cough at night, you can better determine if it warrants a vet visit. Oftentimes, relatively minor causes are behind night coughing, but diagnosing the issue through your vet is key.

Possible Causes

There are a few common reasons why a dog may cough and gag more at night.

Kennel Cough

Kennel cough, also known as canine infectious tracheobronchitis, is a highly contagious respiratory disease in dogs. It’s caused by bacterial or viral infections of the trachea and bronchi. The characteristic symptom is a persistent, forceful cough. Kennel cough is spread through respiratory droplets or contact with contaminated objects. It often causes more coughing at night as the irritated airways produce more mucus. Kennel cough usually resolves on its own, but antibiotics may be prescribed in severe cases. Vaccination can help prevent infection (AKC).

Heart Disease

Heart disease like dilated cardiomyopathy is common in older dogs. It causes the heart to enlarge and not pump blood effectively. Fluid can back up into the lungs, causing coughing and gagging episodes, which tend to be worse at night when lying down. Other symptoms include exercise intolerance, fainting, and breathing difficulties. Medications can help manage heart disease, and avoiding strenuous activity is recommended (ToeGrips).

Collapsing Trachea

Collapsing trachea causes the airway to flatten, obstructing airflow and triggering a cough reflex. Small dog breeds are more prone to this condition. The tracheal cartilage rings weaken over time, leading to airway collapse. Coughing and gagging are classic signs, exacerbated by excitement, exercise, or wearing a leash that puts pressure on the trachea. Treatments include medications to control coughing and surgery to reinforce the trachea in severe cases (GoodRx).

Kennel Cough

One of the most common causes of nighttime coughing and gagging in dogs is kennel cough. Kennel cough is an infectious respiratory disease caused by either bacteria or virus, with the most common being the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica 1. It’s highly contagious and spreads easily between dogs that are in close contact. The signature symptom is a persistent, dry cough that often sounds like a honking noise.

Kennel cough usually causes coughing and gagging that gets worse at night when the dog is resting 2. Dogs with kennel cough tend to cough and gag more when they are inactive because that’s when they are noticing the irritation in their throat and airways. During the day when they are active and moving around, the coughing may decrease or go away temporarily.

In most healthy adult dogs, kennel cough will go away on its own within 1-2 weeks without treatment. However, antibiotics may be prescribed by a vet in some cases. It’s important to keep the dog isolated from other dogs during recovery so the infection doesn’t continue to spread.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is a common cause of nighttime coughing in dogs. As a dog’s heart becomes enlarged, it can put pressure on the trachea (windpipe), causing irritation that leads to coughing or gagging especially when lying down at night [1]. Fluid buildup in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema, is also common with heart disease and can cause coughing as well.

Heart disease tends to be more prevalent in older dogs. An enlarged heart may lead to heart failure, where the heart is unable to pump blood effectively. This results in fluid backing up into the lungs. The cough associated with heart failure has been described as soft and moist-sounding [2].

Treatment for heart disease focuses on medications to improve heart function and remove excess fluid from the body. However, heart disease is progressive in dogs and the cough is likely to persist and worsen over time. While treatment can help manage symptoms, heart disease cannot be cured.

Collapsing Trachea

Collapsing trachea, also known as tracheal collapse, is a condition where a dog’s windpipe (trachea) weakens and collapses during breathing (source). This causes a classic coughing or gagging sound, often described as a “goose honk.” Collapsing trachea is common in small dog breeds, especially Yorkies, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and Poodles. It also frequently affects older dogs as the tracheal cartilage rings weaken with age (source).

The trachea collapses more when a dog is excited, pulling on a leash, eating or drinking. The collapsed windpipe obstructs airflow and triggers coughing spells. Symptoms are often worse at night when the dog is lying down and gravity causes the trachea to flatten even more.

Other Causes

In addition to the common causes of nighttime coughing and gagging mentioned earlier, some other potential causes include:

Allergies

Dogs can develop allergies to things like pollen, dust mites, mold spores, and dander that may trigger coughing and gagging episodes. Allergic reactions cause inflammation in the respiratory tract which leads to coughing and gagging, especially at night when dogs are resting in places where allergens may accumulate. Treatment usually involves medications like antihistamines and avoiding exposure to allergens.

Acid reflux

Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can cause gagging and coughing in dogs, especially while lying down at night. When stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, it irritates the lining and triggers coughing. Acid reflux is more common in overweight, middle-aged dogs. Treatment involves medications, dietary changes, and elevating food bowls.

Foreign object

If a dog swallows or inhales a foreign object like a bone, toy, or stick, it can become lodged in the throat, lungs, or stomach and cause gagging, coughing, and distress. Usually the object can be removed through endoscopy or surgery. Preventing access to small objects can help avoid this issue.

Diagnosis

To diagnose the cause of nighttime coughing and gagging in dogs, the vet will first perform a full physical exam. They will listen to the dog’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope to check for abnormalities. The vet may also feel the trachea to see if it collapses when the dog coughs, which can indicate a collapsed trachea.

Chest x-rays are often recommended to get visuals of the heart and lungs. X-rays can reveal an enlarged heart, fluid in the lungs, or other issues that may be causing coughing. According to the AKC, x-rays are especially useful for diagnosing heart disease, pneumonia, cancer, or a collapsing trachea as the cause of coughing and gagging [1].

Other diagnostic tests may include bloodwork to assess organ function, an echocardiogram to evaluate heart health, endoscopy to examine the airways, and bronchoscopy to view the lungs. These tests help the vet pinpoint the underlying condition causing nighttime coughing.

Treatment

The treatment for a dog coughing and gagging at night depends on the underlying cause of the symptoms. According to the AKC, treatment may include medication, environmental modifications, and lifestyle changes based on your vet’s diagnosis and recommendations.

For example, if kennel cough is the cause, the vet may prescribe antibiotics like doxycycline to treat the bacterial infection. They may also recommend cough suppressants, bronchodilators, and anti-inflammatories to provide relief from coughing and gagging. Keeping the dog away from infected dogs while contagious is also important.

If a collapsing trachea is behind night coughing, the vet may prescribe cough suppressants, bronchodilators, steroids, and sedatives to reduce coughing and discomfort. Lifestyle changes like keeping an ideal body weight, using a harness instead of a collar for leashed walks, and avoiding excitement, heat, and vigorous exercise may help as well.

In cases of heart disease, diuretics, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, and other medications may be prescribed. Dietary changes, exercise limitations, and oxygen therapy may also be recommended. Identifying and treating the underlying heart condition is key.

Work closely with your vet to determine the proper treatment plan based on the specific diagnosis in your dog’s case. They can provide medication, therapies, and lifestyle change guidance to help reduce coughing and gagging episodes.

Prevention

There are some steps you can take to help prevent coughing and gagging episodes in your dog:

Avoid exposure to irritants and allergens. Dust, pollen, smoke, and other irritants can trigger coughing and gagging. Try to limit your dog’s exposure by keeping the house clean, using air filters, and avoiding walks on high-pollen days.

Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight puts pressure on the throat and airways. Keep your dog trim to reduce irritation.

Get annual vet checkups. Your vet can check for underlying conditions and recommend preventive care. Things like dental cleanings, vaccinations, and medication can help reduce coughing.

When to See the Vet

If your dog’s coughing and gagging persists for more than a few days or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, it’s important to schedule a veterinary appointment. According to the American Kennel Club[1], you should seek veterinary care if your dog’s cough lasts more than 10-14 days or is progressively worsening. Significant lethargy, loss of appetite, or labored breathing are also red flags warranting an urgent vet visit.

Some specific signs that coughing has become serious and requires veterinary attention include:

  • Cough lasts more than a few days
  • Difficulty breathing or rapid, shallow breathing
  • Pale or blue gums
  • Lethargy and loss of energy
  • Loss of appetite or reduced appetite
  • Gagging or coughing up white, yellow, or green mucus

Your vet will likely listen to your dog’s chest with a stethoscope, take x-rays, and run other tests to diagnose the underlying cause. Prompt treatment is important, as persistent coughing can be exhausting for a dog and lead to more serious complications if left untreated.

In summary, contact your vet right away if your dog’s coughing continues beyond a few days, involves gagging/vomiting, or is accompanied by other systemic signs of illness. The sooner the underlying cause can be identified and treated, the better the outcome will be for your dog.

[1] https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/what-to-do-when-your-dog-has-a-cough/

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