Why Is My Dog Coughing Up Foam?

Updated on December 14, 2017
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Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, 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.

Kennel Cough

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.

Heart Disease

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

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.

Fungal Infection

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.

Disclaimer: the above article is not to be used for the purpose of diagnosing your dog. It's only the result of my research on the topic using books and online resources. If your dog is coughing, please see your vet immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment.

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      Janay DeLeone 6 weeks ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Vickie 3 months ago

      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?

    • profile image

      Dave 10 months ago

      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.

    • alexadry profile image
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      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 11 months ago from USA

      It depends on what it is causing it, so your vet will need to determine what is causing it in the first place.

    • profile image

      My dog has had a cough for 3 days 11 months ago

      My dog has had a cough for 3 days what can I to help him.

    • profile image

      Katlego 14 months ago

      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.

    • alexadry profile image
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      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 14 months ago from USA

      Gabriel, if your dog is foaming at the mouth, see your vet!

    • alexadry profile image
      Author

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 14 months ago from USA

      Coughing after being boarded is highly suggestive of kennel cough.

    • profile image

      sheila t. 15 months ago

      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

    • profile image

      Melony 15 months ago

      Trish, does eating a vole cause a dog to start vomiting and coughing up foam?

    • profile image

      Trish 15 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Gabriel 15 months ago

      my shih tzu has foaming in her mouth what should i do

    • alexadry profile image
      Author

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 15 months ago from USA

      You'll need to see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.

    • profile image

      Margaret Taylor 15 months ago

      what can i give my dog to stop him coughing and bringing flem up

    • alexadry profile image
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      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 17 months ago from USA

      I think your dog needs a second opinion. Sounds like there's much more going on than a yeast infection of the skin.

    • profile image

      Tina 18 months ago

      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?

    • alexadry profile image
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      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 21 months ago from USA

      Definitively see your vet if your dog is coughing and lethargic.

    • profile image

      Duane 21 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Lynette 23 months ago

      Can people get sick from the bacteria?

    • profile image

      Alexander 23 months ago

      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

    • alexadry profile image
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      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      Sounds like a vet visit is in order in a pup so young. Please see the vet.

    • profile image

      wendy 3 years ago

      My 2 month puppy is peeing blood and not eating

    • alexadry profile image
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      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks for stopping by FluorishAnyway, and thanks for the votes up!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      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.

    • alexadry profile image
      Author

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      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.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      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 profile image

      Sinea Pies 4 years ago from Northeastern United States

      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.

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