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Pneumonia in dogs: What you should know

Dogs who've lost their spunk or are losing weight or coughing may have bacterial or aspiration pneumonia. Here's what experts say you should know about spotting this illness in dogs.

If you’ve noticed your dog doesn’t have much spunk in his step, is losing weight or has been coughing, they might have pneumonia. While the condition is treatable, you don’t want to waste time before getting the ol’ dog seen by your vet. To help keep your pup healthy, here’s what you need to know about pneumonia in dogs.

Two types: Bacterial and aspiration pneumonia

The first thing you should know is that pneumonia is a condition that involves inflammation of the lungs. Dogs can get two types of pneumonia: bacterial and aspiration (also called inhalation pneumonia). “With a bacterial infection, most commonly the infection starts in the alveoli (where oxygen is exchanged),” explains veterinarian Dr. Amber Andersen, medical director and owner of Redondo Veterinary Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“The body produces inflammatory cells and fluid accumulation as a way to fight off infection. On the other hand, aspiration pneumonia is caused by a secondary infection that causes inflammation in the lungs with the overaccumulation of mucus.”

Identifying bacterial pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is brought on by disease-causing bacteria. Several types of bacterial organisms can lead to the development of pneumonia in your dog. The most common culprits are streptococcus, staphylococcus and E. coli, notes Andersen.

Common symptoms of bacterial pneumonia in dogs may include:

  • Cough.
  • Fever.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Lethargy.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Dehydration.
  • Nasal discharge.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Behavioral changes, which should easily identified.

“We adopted a dog and immediately took her for a hike with friends that same day and noticed she was walking very slowly and coughing.

We imagined she probably had kennel cough so took her to the vet immediately to get her started in treatment,” remembers Bonnie Schwartz, a dog owner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The vet took some chest X-rays, and she was diagnosed with pneumonia.” Thanks to quick action by Schwartz, her dog was treated before too much time had passed.

Identifying aspiration pneumonia

Your dog can get aspiration (inhalation) pneumonia by inhaling foreign matter — such as vomit, food or gastric acid — or by neurological disorders that cause swallowing problems or laryngeal paralysis. Neuromuscular disorders affecting your dog’s nerves and muscles and disorders of the esophagus can also cause the condition.

If your dog has aspiration pneumonia, the symptoms are quite similar to those of bacterial pneumonia, say Andersen. Common symptoms of aspiration pneumonia in dogs may include:

  • Cough.
  • Fever.
  • Lethargy.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Elevation of head while taking deep breaths, in severe cases.

Treating pneumonia

The treatment for both types of pneumonia in dogs is similar, depending on the severity of the condition. “Treatments may include antibiotics to help fight the infection, bronchodilators to help open the airways and, in more critical cases, oxygen therapy,” says Andersen. Your dog might need a nebulizing treatment, which is medication delivered by spray or mist, or might need to be “drummed” on with cupped hands, which is a treatment known as coupaging.

In the case of bacterial pneumonia, your pup will need antimicrobial medication. If your dog has lost weight or is severely dehydrated, intravenous (IV) fluid may be given, and she may be hospitalized to better facilitate treatment. Just as in humans, it will take some time for your dog to fully recover.

“Our vet gave us antibiotics for our dog. Within days she started to feel better and get spunkier, but it probably took about 10 days or two weeks for her to really start showing her joyful, energetic self,” notes Schwartz. “We were glad to notice and catch it quickly. My advice would be a vet visit if you’re seeing any signs of lethargy and coughing.”

Aspiration pneumonia in dogs isn’t something to take lightly, as it can be fatal if it’s not treated right away. The condition may cause severe respiratory distress and require suction of the airways to help the dog resume normal breathing patterns. Seek treatment immediately if you suspect your dog has aspirated.

Keeping pneumonia from spreading in dogs

Keep your dog with pneumonia away from all other pets, recommends Andersen. Bacterial pneumonia is quite contagious and is easily passed from dog to dog. “If you have multiple dogs at home, isolate your pet to prevent the spread of the infection,” she advises. “Clean all toys, bedding and bowls that your sick pet may have contaminated.”

Tell your dog walker they have the next one or two weeks off so your dog can rest.

Preventing your dog from becoming ill

The chance of your dog developing bacterial pneumonia is reduced by regularly vaccinating your dog to help prevent infections that can lead to pneumonia. This is especially important if your dog frequents a kennel situation and is regularly exposed to numerous other dogs. It’s also a good idea to talk to your dog walker or dog sitter about limiting your pet’s interactions with stray or unknown dogs who could be carrying an infection.

Regular annual exams with your vet also serve to keep your pet healthy and prevent the early onset of diseases.