Can Dogs Catch Colds? Signs and Treatments
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Runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing—is it possible for a dog to get the sniffles? Here's how to tell what's bugging your pooch and how you can help.
For months, we’ve heard the advice: Wash your hands, wear a mask, social distance. While that’s good advice for weathering cold and flu season, our canine companions can’t very well do any of that. (Even though they are pretty smart!) As the temperatures drop and we spend more time indoors with our pets, we might start to notice cold-like symptoms or odd behaviors in them. So, can dogs get colds?
While there is evidence of canine influenza (“dog flu”), the virus that causes it is different from what we would consider “the common cold.” There also haven’t been significant cases of COVID-19 in dogs. But when we’re talking about classic cold symptoms—watery eyes, coughing, sneezing, runny nose—”yes, dogs can get that,” says Amanda Bruce, DVM, a veterinarian who practices emergency and shelter medicine in central Texas. Here’s how you can identify the signs of a doggy cold and what you should do to help your pup.
What is a cold?
“When I think of a cold in a dog,” says Dr. Bruce, “I think of kennel cough or canine infectious respiratory disease complex. It’s a broad heading that we use for all the viruses and bacteria in dogs that cause these symptoms.” She notes that the severity of that cold can depend on which of those viruses or bacteria your pet has been exposed to.
What are the symptoms?
Cold symptoms in dogs are similar to the ones that people experience. Sometimes you have mild symptoms, with just an occasional cough or sneeze. And sometimes you don’t want to eat, you don’t want to get out of bed, or you run a mild fever. “Dogs can have that spectrum of disease, as well,” notes Dr. Bruce, “depending on how severely they’re affected.” Here are some other signs that might indicate your pet isn’t feeling well.
With classic kennel cough, which is an upper respiratory infection, “there’s what I would refer to as a dry, ‘goose honk’ sort of cough,” says Dr. Bruce. With inflammation of the lining of the airways, she notes, you’ll get that dry honking cough. But if your dog moves into the pneumonia side of it, you might have more of a moist productive cough, she adds.
Could it be something other than a cold?
If your dog is up-to-date on his or her shots, it’s probably not something more serious than a cold. But if not, you might have cause for concern. “Distemper is one of the things that we very aggressively vaccinate dogs against,” Dr. Bruce says. “It often starts out with signs of an upper respiratory infection—watery eyes, a cough, fever—but it can progress to a pretty significant neurological disease that leads to death in a high number of animals.”
Then there’s influenza. Though it doesn’t necessarily have a seasonality in dogs, there are definitely outbreaks. If you’re in a region that has had dog flu outbreaks, consider a canine flu vaccine. You should also keep in mind that we don’t vaccinate against every possible cold-causing virus or bacteria, so it’s important to pay close attention to your dog’s symptoms and consult with your veterinarian.
Are some dogs more susceptible to colds?
There are animals that are at high risk of catching disease, as well as animals that are at lower risk. Dr. Bruce says that if you have a pet that spends a lot of time at a doggy daycare center or boarding facility, you increase the risk of exposure to things that you may not be vaccinating your pet against. Other things to consider are age (both very young and very old), as well as health status—such as an autoimmune disease that would cause your pet to be on an immunosuppressive drug. Even certain breeds of dog, such as those with short noses (like pugs), may display more dramatic signs and symptoms due to the anatomy of their airways. But the bottom line is: Simply congregating in areas with lots of other dogs, particularly unvaccinated dogs, puts your pet at risk.
How do you treat dog colds?
You might have heard that antibiotics can’t be used to treat viral infections in humans; instead, we focus on treating the symptoms. Similarly, in dogs, “we institute treatment when supportive care is warranted,” says Dr. Bruce. If your pet is eating, drinking, and remaining active, that may mean the animal’s disease is “self-limiting,” she says. It will have run its course in one or two weeks, meaning your dog’s immune system managed to fend it off without any intervention.
Sometimes, however, you need symptomatic support, like doggy cough suppressants, to make your pet more comfortable. (But check with your vet first!) If your pet isn’t eating or drinking or has been running a fever for some time, they may need IV fluid support or fever-reducing medications. And sometimes pets do get secondary bacterial infections; in those cases, antibiotics would definitely be warranted, Dr. Bruce adds.
How else can you help Fido fight a cold? Dr. Bruce suggests limiting excitement or highly aerobic activity that would “increase respiratory effort” because it can “start the coughing cycle, which can then lead to gagging and sometimes vomiting.” You can also place your pet in the bathroom during your own steamy shower, which “can act as a nebulizer and be helpful.”
To add some additional fluids and encourage your pet to eat, offer chicken broth, the liquid from a can of tuna, or even a bland food such as boiled chicken. Or, she adds, you can try warming food slightly in the microwave; that can increase the smell just enough so that an animal with congestion can smell it better and will be more likely to eat. These tricks will also work in some other situations when your dog isn’t eating.
When should you take your dog to the vet?
“Not eating for more than 12 to 24 hours is always concerning to me,” says Dr. Bruce. “Vomiting and diarrhea aren’t necessarily something that we would expect with a cold, but it becomes more complicated when you have other bodily systems involved. That’s always alarming.” Fever would also be cause for concern, but most people don’t know when their pets have a fever. Dr. Bruce says you could take a rectal temperature on your pet, but usually, if they’re running a fever, they’re not going to want to eat. Other signs include being lethargic and otherwise not carrying out their typical daily habits. Basically, you know what’s normal behavior for your dog, but here are some other signals they might give you.
Can dogs get colds from people?
You don’t necessarily have to banish your dog if you get a cold (or vice versa). “Most of the things that cause colds in people do not go to dogs,” says Dr. Bruce. Since random viruses are always acquiring new abilities and changing, she says, “we can’t say that’s not ever possible, but it’s not something that routinely occurs. Still, even if the risk is very low, it’s always wise to practice good hygiene. Things can get transferred, so even after petting your own pets, wash your hands. Good hygiene is always important.” FYI, here are the diseases you can spread to your dog.
Can your other dogs catch the cold?
There’s usually an incubation period before you see signs of disease, notes Dr. Bruce. As a result, a sick pet has probably already been shedding that virus or bacteria for a few days. You might be able to decrease the duration or signs of illness in a second pet if you can confine one of them, “but most likely that spread has already occurred,” she explains. Most of the time, once they get over it, they’ve got some immunity to it. As for washing their bedding and toys, it might make us feel better, “but I don’t know that it really changes the course of the illness,” she says.
Can you prevent colds in dogs?
The good news is that you can vaccinate against a lot of the viruses and some of the bacteria that cause kennel cough, says Dr. Bruce. When your pet gets the core vaccinations, they’re protected against parvovirus, distemper, rabies, and hepatitis, according to the ASPCA. And when you vaccinate your dog specifically for kennel cough, that’s for bacteria called Bordetella, adds Dr. Bruce.
Beyond that, the biggest thing that anyone can do to protect their pets is to prohibit them from sharing water bowls at dog parks. It’s the same reason we don’t drink out of another person’s cup—communal things are where diseases tend to spread. “Saliva spreads most respiratory diseases,” says Dr. Bruce, “so if they’re slobbering all over unknown dogs just playing in a dog park, or they’re using that communal water bowl, that’s where the average dog is most likely to be exposed.” Dr. Bruce doesn’t advise against the social-networking aspect of dog parks, especially for high-energy dogs, but she does suggest bringing your own water bowl.
And speaking of dog parks, don’t bring really young puppies there until they’re 16 to 20 weeks old. That’s when their immune system is revved up enough to fight off most diseases—and they’ve received their core puppy vaccines. “When they’re fully vaccinated, their immune system is ready to go out to the world,” she says.
As for your adult dog, maintaining good overall health is key. Typically, Dr. Bruce notes, that means maintaining a healthy weight through portion control and exercise. Speaking of which, here’s how much exercise your dog really needs.