Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Your dog starts coughing, and then, finally, he coughs up a white, foamy liquid. What is happening?
Why Dogs Cough
Like humans, dogs cough to clear their throats. They cough to clear the respiratory tract and get rid of irritants, secretions, foreign particles, viruses, fungi, and bacteria.
The mechanism of coughing in humans and dogs is also the same: there's a fast inhalation, followed by an exhalation, accompanied by a strong release of air.
In humans, coughing may be voluntary or involuntary. But in dogs, there is no such thing as a social cough; they don't "clear their throat" to get somebody's attention or start a conversation. A cough in dogs is something that needs attention, especially if it happens again and again throughout the day, or with other accompanying symptoms.
There may be several possible causes for coughing. In the case of occasional coughing, the dog may be simply choking on some food, or his respiratory tract may be just reacting to some temporary irritant. This kind of cough is often short-lived and stops once the airway is clear. However, the dog may have a hard time clearing its throat if a foreign item such as a foxtail is present; if so, the dog will need veterinary intervention.
A cough is called "productive" when it's capable of bringing up secretions. A non-productive cough is dry, with no secretions produced.
Often, owners confuse a productive cough that brings up foam with vomiting. They will, therefore, tell their vets that their dog is vomiting white foam, without mentioning the important detail that the dog was coughing before the foam made its way up.
Viruses and bacteria provoke coughing as part of their survival strategy; coughing helps microbes spread to other dogs. So a coughing dog should be isolated from other dogs to prevent possible contagion, just to be safe, before he has a confirmed diagnosis.
Conditions That May Cause Dogs to Cough Up Foam
Any dog coughing up foam should see the vet because some serious conditions can cause this behavior. Some causes are described below, with videos to illustrate. These videos may disturb sensitive viewers. Discretion is advised.
If your dog has been to the vet, groomer, dog park, or kennel recently, he might have contracted kennel cough, also known as bordetella because it can be caused by Bordetella bacteria. The incubation period for this upper respiratory infection is generally three to ten days. This condition is easily transmitted from one dog to another. Typically, the dog will cough repeatedly, and end up gagging and then retching, bringing up white, foamy saliva. This foam may be left as a puddle on the floor, or the dog may swallow it.
There is a bordetella vaccine for dogs, but it is not terribly effective, because it covers only a few organisms out of the many bacteria and viruses that cause kennel cough.
When a dog has advanced heart disease or heart failure, his circulation is affected. Heart disease in dogs often causes a cough, and then as it progresses, other complications such as ascites (buildup of fluid in the belly). This cough may be triggered by the enlarged heart pushing against the trachea. It may begin as a non-productive cough, but may then turn productive as heart failure sets in, and often occurs at night. Lack of proper circulation will soon cause blood to pool in the lungs, explains veterinarian Carol Osborne. This causes the dog to cough up blood mixed with mucus and saliva, which appears as a pink, foamy mixture.
If your dog has an unexplained recurrent cough, have him seen by a vet, even if there are no signs of pink foam or other symptoms. You don't want your dog's condition to deteriorate, reaching the point of the dog in the video. Heartworm disease may also cause a "heart cough."
Bloat (stretching and twisting of the stomach) is a life-threatening condition, and dog owners should all learn about its symptoms. It's more common in deep-chested breeds. While bloat typically causes a distended abdomen, pacing, and unproductive retching, some sick dogs may be able to retch and bring up foam.
In the video below, you'll see a dog suffering from bloat, and there is a moment where the camera shows some liquid foam the dog brought up. Fortunately, the dog in the video survived, but mortality rates are pretty high, especially when treatment is not sought in time.
Bilious Vomiting Syndrome (Vomiting Yellow Foam)
As mentioned previously, many owners confuse coughing with vomiting. Vomiting may also be confused with coughing. When a dog has bilious vomiting, he may wake up in the middle of the night to vomit and retch, leaving a small puddle of whitish or yellowish foam. Such vomiting can also happen during the day, especially in dogs who are fed only once a day. This yellow-foam vomiting is caused by the buildup of bile resulting from the stomach being empty for too long. According to Vet Info, some dogs can be helped by simply giving them a bedtime snack. Dogs with this problem who are fed once a day may benefit from twice-a-day feedings.
In the video, notice the stomach contractions as the dog gets ready to vomit.
What if a dog drinks a lot of water and then vomits foamy liquid back up? According to veterinarian Dr. Kara, this may happen to dogs who vomit often and are exposed to stomach acids. Their esophageal sphincter may swell and become less effective in dealing with an overfull stomach (as when the dog drinks too much). Placing large rocks in the water bowl, to prevent the dog from gulping down loads of water at once, may help. An acid reducer may also help. However, in some cases, the reflux may be due to megaesophagus, consult with your vet.
While kennel cough is caused by viruses or bacteria, coughing can also be caused by a fungus. Valley fever is a fungal condition quite common in the desert Southwest, caused by spores found in the soil, that causes a stubborn cough. The disease may cause fever and disseminate to the joints. The cough may be somewhat similar to kennel cough, with coughing followed by the release of mucus. While in kennel cough the body is trying to expel bacteria or viruses, in valley fever it is trying to get rid of the fungus. At least valley fever is not contagious from one dog to another.
As you can see, there can be several causes for coughing and bringing up foam. Because many conditions can be serious, it's always recommended to have the dog see a vet.
A Possible Cause of Coughing in Small Dogs
- Understanding Collapsed Trachea in Dogs
Learn what collapsed trachea is, how to prevent it, and treatment options for your dog with a collapsed trachea.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: What treatment is needed for a young dog who has kennel cough, and is vomiting up white foam and saliva?
Answer: If it is truly kennel cough, you will have to see the vet. The vet may decide to do nothing (if a cough is not severe) but most will give some type of prescription medications.
Generally, kennel cough is treated with a course of antibiotics such as amoxicillin/clavulanate or doxycycline in dogs who are at risk for secondary pneumonia such as very young dogs or the very old ones.
Some vets may also prescribe cough suppressants especially when a cough is so severe that the dog cannot sleep.
Question: My dog's cough is sometimes dry, other times he coughs up a white mucus-like substance, but it's not foamy. Any ideas as to the problem? He is also 13 years old and a large breed.
Answer: Coughing in an elderly dog can be concerning, so your best bet is to see your vet get this sorted out. To just list a few possible causes, things that come to mind are heart issues (with fluid buildup), kennel cough (if he has been around other dogs lately), bronchitis, allergies, heartworm disease, laryngeal paralysis, bloat, (if restless and accompanied by abdominal distension) and pneumonia.
Question: What does a black tongue mean in dogs?
Answer: A bluish-black tongue is often found in dog breeds such as Chow Chows and Chinese sharp-pei. Mixes of such breeds may too boast a black tongue. Sometimes, a pigmented tongue may be indicative of inflammation or infection. If your dog is acting abnormally, please see your vet.
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 23, 2020:
Hi Scared for my dog,
I am sorry to hear about your dog having end stage lymphoma. You might find this helpful: https://pethelpful.com/pet-ownership/The-Dog-Dying...
Scared for my dog on May 27, 2020:
My dog has lymphoma (a type of cancer in the lungs) and she does not have long to live how do i make her feal better and when she does pass away how do i make my other dog feal better?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 21, 2020:
Dog lover, that lump sounds like something that should be checked out by your vet.
doglover on May 21, 2020:
Hi there when my dog has to much activite she starts to hack and cough and looks like she is going to through up and something comes out of her mouth its not her tongue (her tongue is to the side) it is a big lump that is red and blue with spots what do i do?
Bex on April 27, 2020:
My CC was at training yesterday, with the leash, and she was pulling really hard choking. She threw up a little bit of blood. She's not eating. Advice?
Nisha on April 20, 2020:
Hello,,my dog is 13yrs old,,,he's coughing a lot and even vomiting white foam...it often happns..can u help me plz,,,
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 12, 2020:
Isis, please let your vet know if your dog is still coughing despite being treated for kennel cough. It may be something else is going on or your dog may need a different type of meds. You can give your vet a call and they should be able to help you, since he was recently seen for this problem.
Isis on February 11, 2020:
My dog is 50 m 25lbs when he gets overly excited or jumps up on me, climbs steers, he begins gagging n coughing n then spits up white foamy stuff, he also weezes n sometimes moans. He on kneel cough meds but I DNT think it's working. What could this be?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 25, 2019:
Sadagopan, please see your vet as this is not normal. Causes may range from abdominal issues, to liver problems and even neurological issues.
Sadagopan sankaranarayana on November 18, 2019:
My dog is an Indian spitz. She seems to gnaw her teeth and then spits up saliva all over the floor and has foam near its lower jaw. this action occured atleast 4 times today. What to do?
Norma on January 19, 2019:
My beagle. She 2 seems to have cold. She’s drinking normal she has water eyes, some sneezing over all just wants to cuddle, I took rectal temp it’s normal.
What can I do to help feel better?
Bonnie Stagno on May 11, 2018:
My dog Standard Poodle has been coughing for over 5 months. Not all day, mostly at night.
Doctor had him on all kinds of medications and helps a little, but coughing would start up again. He is eating, drinking, exercising and looks very healthy. The doc said his heart is like an athlete.
This morning he coughed up white foam...I’m at wits end trying to stop the coughing. I hope you can give me some advice. Next step is a specialist.
Jeff Springer on March 31, 2018:
I don't mean to scare people but my dog's been coughing for over a year and we've taken her to 3 different vets and no one can figure out what's going on, they will give her some medication and it seem to get better for a little bit but then it will come right back sometimes worse than before.
Annie on March 21, 2018:
My dog is 7yrs old she has been coughing and puking white foamy liquid and she will not eat not even her favorite ducky jerky treats. What is happening please,
Samantha on February 21, 2018:
I have a Chihuahua/Pomeranian mix. She suddenly developed a dry, hacking cough & will cough up clear, foamy liquid. She's been in the best health until yesterday morning when this began.
I'm really worried about her & a little scared. She's my bonded buddy/constant companion. I'm a paraplegic in a wheelchair & I'm mostly (95%) home bound. Don't have the funds to take her to a vet if I had transportation to do so.
Can you help me to help her please? What's wrong with my little girl & how can I help her get to feeling better again? What medicine can I get for her?
Janay DeLeone on October 29, 2017:
My tiny toy poodle is still eating and drinking his water is very alert takes treats and outside but has for last few days had enough and when something comes up its white foam.
I've been giving him a little bit of butter daily..please any suggestions.
Vickie on August 27, 2017:
Rescued a 2 1/2 yr. old shitzu mix last Friday. He had been to the vet and neutered the same day. He has done very well until about 5 AM today. He began coughing up a white foam and obviously does not feel well at all. Your thoughts?
Dave on February 09, 2017:
My dogs killed an armadillo tonight while on a walk. We finished the mile and 1/2 and came home. They started coughing when we got home and have continued for a couple hours cough up white foam after almost gagging.
They have calmed down now.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 29, 2016:
It depends on what it is causing it, so your vet will need to determine what is causing it in the first place.
My dog has had a cough for 3 days on December 29, 2016:
My dog has had a cough for 3 days what can I to help him.
Katlego on October 07, 2016:
Hello, I have 4 JackRussel puppies and one of them was crying since I woke up (the other 3 are completely okay). I thought her tummy was sore because they tend to eat quite fast at times so I rubbed it for her (she isn't showing any signs of bloating), this seemed to calm her down but as soon as I stopped she started crying again. She kept jotting her head forward as if she wanted to vomit but didnt let anything out, now she vomited a white foam with a slight yellow mucus. she can lay down and sit but keeps crying. I tried to get her to drink water but she doesn't want any.
all this only started this morning.
What can I do to help her? I'm very concerned.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 27, 2016:
Gabriel, if your dog is foaming at the mouth, see your vet!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 27, 2016:
Coughing after being boarded is highly suggestive of kennel cough.
sheila t. on September 17, 2016:
just got dog from shelter, german sheppard mix. was neutered and chipped and got him home, today he is coughing white foam most of afternoon, scares me, can't get him to vet til monday, today is saturday
Melony on September 15, 2016:
Trish, does eating a vole cause a dog to start vomiting and coughing up foam?
Trish on September 15, 2016:
So my dog actually ate a vole if you do not know what that is. A vole is a tiny usually grey mouse that is blind they all are so they get around by scent. They are everywhere in the grass we don't notice them. My dog manages to sniff em out and chases them. So if your dog is searching in the grass and you hear chirping coming from that area it's most likely a vole. I would highly suggest preventing your dog from eating or harming the poor thing as it will most likely get sick like mine who knows what they might carry as well so please pay attention.
Gabriel on September 02, 2016:
my shih tzu has foaming in her mouth what should i do
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 28, 2016:
You'll need to see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Margaret Taylor on August 27, 2016:
what can i give my dog to stop him coughing and bringing flem up
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 29, 2016:
I think your dog needs a second opinion. Sounds like there's much more going on than a yeast infection of the skin.
Tina on June 18, 2016:
My little Shitzu has been chewing at her hind legs and pulling the hair out and scratching her belly as well. She gets. So red on her belly and it swells where she chewed snd her paw is swollen. Dr gave her some meds fir yeast infection. Now she not able to eat cause she had a bump in her mouth on one side and is foaming at the mouth a lot and drules a lot. She has a hard time breathing and kinda fast at times like her air passages are plugged up like ours would be if we were congested in the nose. The vet is short and sweet and charges 75.00 every time you go in and I am tired of heRing just give her that medicine and its yeast and allergies. She is 14 years old. What do you suggest?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 02, 2016:
Definitively see your vet if your dog is coughing and lethargic.
Duane on March 01, 2016:
My cocker spaniel has recently started coughing and gagging periodically through the day and night. So far its mild but Im a little concerned. The other night he left some puddles of clear mucus on the carpet in two locations. He seems lethargic and wont even get up the energy to go to the door to ask to go outside to go to the bathroom.
Lynette on January 24, 2016:
Can people get sick from the bacteria?
Alexander on January 19, 2016:
How Do I Cure It I Hope Theres something to help it cure the things I've had a dog who's died 2 of them and i don't wanna lose 1 more
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 01, 2014:
Sounds like a vet visit is in order in a pup so young. Please see the vet.
wendy on September 01, 2014:
My 2 month puppy is peeing blood and not eating
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 12, 2013:
Thanks for stopping by FluorishAnyway, and thanks for the votes up!
FlourishAnyway from USA on November 12, 2013:
Well-researched, helpful hub for dog owners. The poor hound in the lead photo just looks miserable, bless its heart. Voted up and more, pinning.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 11, 2013:
Thanks for the votes up folks! I hope it helps point out why a cough in dogs should be never taken lightly, may be nothing major, but as always, better be safe than sorry.
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on November 10, 2013:
Very well-researched article.
It is, indeed, most important to get these kinds of things checked by a vet before they get to the point of being untreatable.
Years ago, we had a dog who would start to cough, up would come white foam..but the cause was soon enough figured out, for along with that foam would come chunks of grass that he'd eaten out in the yard! Why dogs eat grass, and then throw it up is beyond me. However, we at least were able to train him to "ask out" when he was about to hurl.
Voted up, interesting, useful and pinned.
Sinea Pies from Northeastern United States on November 10, 2013:
Thank you for writing such an important post. Dog owners need to be informed.
My dog just had an episode with vomiting, diarrhea and foaming at the mouth (no cough). It was scary. We took her right to the vet, thinking she may have been poisoned. In a way, she had been. Self inflicted. She ate a toad! Thankfully, the poison the toad secreted was only enough to make her sick, and she consequently set the toad free I am sure. Close call!
Voted up and useful.