Many Bulldogs have snuffly breathing: their noses are flattened, and you can sometimes hear them coming before you see them. In contrast, Arnie has normal, silent breathing: he is a moderate version of the Bulldog breed, with a distinct muzzle rather than a flattened face. This means that his respiratory health is exceptionally good for his breed: he normally enjoys exercising at full tilt, running around even in warm weather, with no difficulty breathing, and no snuffling or snorting.
So when he started to cough a few weeks ago, Leon paid close attention: it was very unusual. The cough was most obvious first thing in the morning, when he got up from his beanbag. He’d cough a few times, bring up some clear white spit, then he’d be fine after that. He also did it last thing at night, when he was settling down to sleep. Apart from that, he seemed normal, carrying on with his usual daily activities. He even carried on with his normal exercise, with no coughing when he was on his regular walks.
He had his usual good appetite, with no sign of an upset stomach, although sometimes he seemed to gag a little while eating, as if his throat was tender.
At first, Leon thought that it might just be a transient mild irritation of his throat, but when it was still there two weeks after it had started, he decided to bring him to the vet.
When I examined Arnie, he seemed in good general health. In fact, he had lost a kilogram since I had last seen him six months previously, which was great news. Bulldogs are prone to putting on weight as they get older, but Arnie was now as lean and fit as any dog of his age.
I examined him all over, and I listened carefully to his heart and lungs with my stethoscope. The good news was that everything was normal: there was no sign of any serious abnormality with his respiratory or cardiac system. So what could be causing him to cough?
There are many possible causes of coughing in dogs, so I asked Leon about his daily lifestyle, searching for clues about what could be going on.
The most likely diagnosis was Kennel Cough, caused by a combination of a virus and bacteria. It spreads easily from dog to dog, so it would be easy for Arnie to pick it up by meeting another dog while out on a walk. It’s easy to treat – with a short course of antibiotics – but if left untreated, it can go on for many weeks, and in some cases, it can even lead to a more serious issue like pneumonia.
However, as I listened to Leon describing how Arnie spent his time, there was one other possible cause that worried me: lungworm. Arnie often goes out into the back yard to sniff around, and even though there’s no grass (it’s like a big patio area, with concrete slabs), it seems to be a meeting place for slugs. Leon often sees slugs slithering around on the concrete. Leon had eaten one previously, and he reacted badly, frothing from the mouth. He soon settled down, but after that experience, Leon thought that Arnie would avoid slugs rather than trying to sniff them or eat them.
As a vet, the presence of slugs in Arnie’s environment was a significant concern: slugs commonly carry lungworm, which can cause dogs to cough. And the most worrying aspect of lungworm is that the cough is only a minor part of the problem: the parasite also stops the blood from clotting properly, and this can lead to a fatal haemorrhage. It’s estimated that dozens of dogs die every year in Ireland from brain haemorrhage caused by poor blood clotting due to undetected lungworm. So any time a dog starts to cough, vets check to see if there is any possible contact with slugs. And if there is, it’s really important to give a specific treatment for lungworm.
It is possible to do further tests, like faeces or blood samples, to check for the presence of lungworm, but in most cases, the simplest approach is simply to give lungworm treatment: it works in every case.
Arnie was already being given a comprehensive worm dose every three months: in the past, this was always sufficient to keep a dog healthy. However lungworm has become more common with climate change, and to prevent this, a once monthly worm dose, using a specific type of wormer, is needed. There are two versions: a spot-on liquid that’s placed on the back of the neck, and a tablet. The best product to use depends on the situation, and vets will usually advise owners on the most appropriate choice.
In Arnie’s case, I decided to use the spot-on product, and I also gave him a course of antibiotics. This treatment will cover the two most likely causes of his cough: Kennel Cough and lungworm. Additionally, it’s important that Leon rests him: just like sportspeople need to rest when they have any respiratory condition, so do dogs.
If Arnie’s cough doesn’t settle down with this treatment, he’ll need to go to the next stage of an investigation, with x-rays of his chest, just as humans would have in similar situations.
He’s had his lungworm dose, he’s resting and he’s taking his tablets. With luck, that annoying cough will soon have cleared up.