Ask the Vet: Why Is My Dog Coughing After Dental Cleaning?

Having your dog’s teeth cleaned can improve their health and quality of life. Full dental cleaning should be done with general anesthesia and include oral x-rays to evaluate what’s going on under the gumline. 

In order to protect a dog’s airway during the procedure, veterinarians insert a hollow, flexible plastic tube into the dog’s windpipe (trachea). This is called an endotracheal tube. It has a little bubble over the far end of it that can be inflated to make an airtight seal inside the trachea. 

That way, no water can accidentally get into the lungs when they rinse your pet’s mouth after cleaning. This tube also protects the dog’s lungs in case they regurgitate stomach contents while they’re unconscious. 

Endotracheal tubes are wonderful tools used to make dog anesthesia safer. But they can irritate the delicate tissue inside the upper throat and windpipe. Most dogs do not cough after a dental cleaning, but it’s not that unusual for a pet owner to notice a dog coughing after dental cleaning for 12-24 hours.  

But endotracheal tube irritation is not the only cause of a dog’s coughing and gagging after teeth cleaning. Let’s talk about some other possible causes and what you should do right now to help your dog…

Complications from Dog Dental Cleaning

Fortunately, complications from dog dental cleaning are uncommon these days. But the side effects of general anesthesia, etc. can include coughing. Here are some possible scenarios…

Tracheal Irritation from Intubation

A dog’s upper respiratory tract anatomy is pretty similar to human anatomy. Deep in the mouth, they have an epiglottis that acts as a protective barrier to keep food and liquid from “going down the wrong pipe” into the airway. 

After the epiglottis lies the larynx with the vocal cords and beyond that is the trachea (a.k.a. windpipe). The trachea is a soft tube held open by rings of cartilage. It travels from the larynx to the carina which is where it branches into smaller tubes going to the lungs. 

endotracheal tube (dog coughing after dental cleaning)
An endotracheal tube.

The lining of the trachea is made of delicate tissue that is moist and contains some very special cells. These cells constantly “sweep” mucus and foreign matter up and out of the airways. 

When any foreign object touches the epiglottis, larynx or trachea the body reacts as if it’s being invaded. Even gentle placement of an endotracheal tube can cause irritation of this delicate tissue that takes a day or so to calm down. (3)

Infectious Cough 

Don’t forget that your dog probably came into contact with other dogs while she was at the vet clinic. Like kids at daycare, dogs can pick up “colds” when they’re around a bunch of other dogs. Organisms that cause an infectious cough in dogs include not only the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica (classic kennel cough) but also several viruses. 

Pre-Existing Disease 

Since animals are non-verbal, we humans have to do our best to notice the smallest symptoms of disease in them. And dogs tend to hide symptoms as part of their survival instinct. 

So, it’s no surprise that stressful events sometimes push a dog over the edge from compensated to uncompensated disease. Whenever a dog starts coughing after a dental cleaning, I also investigate for signs of heart disease and respiratory disease. 

X-rays and blood tests can help identify congestive heart failure, heart arrhythmias, chronic bronchitis and even heartworm disease. 

And let’s not forget that small and toy breed dogs are prone to collapsing trachea. Affected dogs may already have chronic irritation inside their windpipes. So it doesn’t take much to irritate them into a dry, hacking cough.

Aspiration Pneumonia

Aspiration pneumonia happens when foreign matter is breathed into the lungs. The foreign matter could be saliva, water, food or stomach contents. 

With an endotracheal tube in place, aspiration pneumonia is a rare occurrence. However, once the dog is recovering and the tube is removed, there is more of a chance they could vomit and breathe a bit of it into their lungs.

Foreign Object in the Trachea

A foreign object in the tracheal can cause a chronic cough. This is a very rare complication seen after anesthesia but I’ve heard of dogs waking up quickly and biting through the endotracheal tube before it can be removed.

In these cases, the staff monitoring the dog would be aware of the problem and take steps to remove the tube. I can imagine some other small object, like an extracted tooth, could somehow go down the tube, but I’ve never actually seen that happen. and can happen during or after the procedure.

Tracheal Injury from Intubation 

It is also possible for a dog’s trachea to sustain an injury from the endotracheal tube. This is also very rare but can result from overinflation of the tube’s cuff or perforation of the tracheal tissue from aggressive tube manipulation.

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Can I Give My Dog Cough Medicine?

There are a few reasons you shouldn’t give your dog cough medicine at home. The first is that the most common over-the-counter human cough medicine contains dextromethorphan as the active ingredient. 

Research has revealed that dextromethorphan is not well absorbed in dogs and is only active in their system for a very short time. That’s why dextromethorphan is not very effective at relieving coughing in dogs. (2)

The other reason not to give your dog cough medicine made for humans is the potential adverse effects it can cause. Cough medicine can cause a stimulating effect or a depressing effect. This turns into a problem when your dog has pre-existing diseases (like heart or blood-pressure issues) or is taking other medication (like pain medication). 

The bottom line is that your veterinarian is your best resource for treating your dog’s cough. They can make sure the medicine is both safe and effective. 

coughing dog
A dog coughing after dental cleaning can be worrisome!

At Home Help for a Dog Coughing After Dental Cleaning

But let’s say it’s the middle of the night and you don’t have access to an emergency vet clinic. If you believe your dog is in respiratory distress, take her to the nearest emergency veterinary clinic immediately.

If your dog seems to be breathing ok and is normal in every other way, you can try a throat-soothing home remedy. 

Homemade Cough Syrup for Dogs

There is some evidence that honey can soothe a cough caused by an upper respiratory tract infection in humans. (1) That doesn’t necessarily translate to being effective for coughing in dogs after endotracheal intubation. But since honey is a safe food product, the risk of causing more problems is very low. 

You can give up to a tablespoon of undiluted honey to your dog every 4 hours, but it’s often easier to give them a honey syrup than straight honey due to its stickiness. 

To make homemade honey cough syrup for your dog, warm  ¼ cup of water to just above body temperature. Next, mix in 2 tablespoons of honey. Use a syringe, eyedropper or spoon to give your dog ½-2 teaspoons of the mixture every 2-4 hours.

Be careful not to give it too fast or he might breathe it in and start hacking even more!

Humidification Can Soothe a Dog’s Cough

If the air is dry it will further irritate the upper respiratory tract. You can set up a humidifier near your dog. If you don’t have a humidifier, try running a hot shower in a small bathroom for 10 minutes to build up some steam. Stay with your dog in the steamy bathroom and monitor his cough. 

Restrict Activity

If your dog is running around, jumping on furniture, playing, etc. it’s probably going to make the cough worse. Restrict her to a small room or crate, if necessary, to keep her calm and minimize her cough. 

What Your Vet Can Do to Help

First of all, your vet will perform a physical exam to see if your dog has other clinical signs that could give a clue as to the cause of the cough. They can listen to your pup’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope and may want to take x-rays of the neck and chest. 

Depending on what your vet finds, they can prescribe a safe and effective treatment for your dog’s post-dental coughing. I often prescribe mild opioid cough suppressants for dogs when I think they have tracheal irritation only. The amount of opioids a dog needs to take is a lot different from the amount humans take, so please don’t try to share your leftover meds with your dog!

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References

  1. Abuelgasim, H., Albury, C., & Lee, J. (2021). Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, 26(2), 57-64.
  2. Dowling, P. M. (2022, August 4). Antitussive Drugs in Animals. Merck Veterinary Manual. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/pharmacology/systemic-pharmacotherapeutics-of-the-respiratory-system/antitussive-drugs-in-animals?query=dextromethorphan
  3. Klainer, A. S., Turndorf, H., Wu, W. H., Maewal, H., & Allender, P. (1975). Surface alterations due to endotracheal intubation. The American journal of medicine, 58(5), 674-683.

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