How to Tell If My Dog Has a Cold

Updated June 17, 2019
Dog sick with a cold

Dogs can catch colds just like people. Help keep your dog healthy by learning how to spot signs of a respiratory infection and how to treat it before the illness has a chance to develop into something serious.

Signs Your Dog Has a Cold

At its simplest, a cold is an upper respiratory infection, and it produces the following symptoms:

  • Nasal congestion and discharge
  • A little difficulty breathing through the nose
  • Occasional coughing that is "wet" unlike the dry, hacking, "honking" cough associated with kennel cough
  • Mild fever
  • Runny eyes
  • Sneezing
  • General lethargy
  • Loss of appetite

While these symptoms can make your dog relatively uncomfortable, they're not severe. Most dogs will get over a simple cold within about a week without any treatment as long as they are kept warm and hydrated.

How to Treat a Cold at Home

Whether you're dealing with dogs or people, there's still no cure for the common cold. However, there are some home remedies you can give your dog to help him or her feel more comfortable during the duration of the cold. While your dog's cold runs its course:

  • Keep your dog warm and provide him a comfortable area to sleep so he gets plenty of rest.
  • Limit time spent outside during cold weather. Cold air tends to make the bronchial tubes constrict; this makes it more difficult for your dog to breathe.
  • Provide extra nutrition like boiled chicken and brown rice to coax your dog to eat. This will keep his or her strength up and provide immune system support.
  • Run a warm mist vaporizer near your dog's sleeping area to help keep the bronchial tubes moistened.
  • Encourage your dog to drink liquids, even if you have to tempt your pet with low sodium chicken broth. This will help keep nasal secretions thin and less likely to clog your dog's nose.
  • Use a balm to keep their nose from getting dry and irritated.
  • Add supplements to his food such as honey, cinnamon and coconut oil as well as botanicals such as plantago lanceolata and echinacea. These are known to have properties to help build up his immune system and provide relief from coughing.
dog takes his medicine

Over-the-Counter Cold Medicine

You can administer children's cold medicine to your dog, but only if the type and dosage are approved by your veterinarian. Cold medicines, both child and adult versions, that contain dextromethorphan can be recommended by your vet in small doses. Robitussin DM, Benylin Expectorant and Siltussin DM are medications that some veterinarians will approve for a dog's cold. Realize that any children's cold medicines that your vet approves won't cure your dog's cold, but it may help ease the symptoms and help make your pet more comfortable.

Dangers of Over-the-Counter Medicine

Avoid any cold medicine that contains the decongestants listed as phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine, which usually are in products with a "D" at the end of their name. Cold medicines with acetaminophen should also be avoided as this is toxic to dogs.

Over-the-Counter Homeopathic Remedies

There are also homeopathic remedies made for dogs available over-the-counter, such as Only Natural Pet Eye & Upper Respiratory Homeopathic Remedy sold at pet supply stores such as PetSmart. HomeoPet is another brand that makes drops that can help provide some relief for dogs with a runny nose and sneezing. You can also use a simple saline nasal spray to help a dog feel more comfortable. While you don't need a prescription for these products, it's wise to discuss them with your veterinarian first before using them.

When to Seek Veterinary Care

The first step in deciding whether your dog needs medical care lies in recognizing his or her symptoms. Once you've determined that your dog may have a cold, you must decide whether it's worth a trip to the vet. Although some respiratory infections do get better on their own without medical intervention, it's difficult for a layperson to judge just how severe a dog's illness really is. The general rule of thumb is that puppies and senior dogs should both be examined by a vet any time they have cold-like symptoms. This is because their immune systems are usually weaker than those of healthy adult pets, and a cold is more likely to progress into pneumonia. With that said, many owners prefer to err on the side of caution and take all sick dogs to the vet for a professional opinion.

Always seek veterinary care if:

  • The symptoms become more intense.
  • The dog develops a rattle in its chest.
  • The dog is in obvious discomfort.
  • The dog stops drinking liquid.

In many cases, a vet will prescribe an antibiotic to treat the illness. While it's true that antibiotics are not effective against viruses, these medications can destroy invading, opportunistic bacteria that make a dog even sicker while its immune system is fighting off the original virus.

Veterinarian talking with dog owner

Illnesses Disguised as Colds

Sometimes, what appear to be symptoms of a common cold can actually be attributed to a variety of respiratory infections caused by canine-specific viruses and bacteria. Some of these infections simply have to run their course until your dog is well again. Others can develop into serious illnesses if allowed to progress unchecked. Take a look at some of the most common illnesses that produce symptoms similar to the common cold.


The parainfluenza virus is one the most common and most contagious purveyors of cold-type illnesses in dogs. That's why combination vaccines include an inoculation against it. The infection is characterized by a chronic cough.

The key symptom is:

  • Chronic cough that doesn't get better

Adenovirus Type-2

Canine adenovirus type-2 is a major cause of common kennel cough, and it produces symptoms that are often mistaken as signs of a run-of-the-mill dog cold. Although this virus is included in combination vaccines, it's not possible to protect completely a dog from contracting the illness. However, an inoculation will go a long way in lessening the severity of the virus if your pet happens to contract it.

Key symptoms are:

  • Gagging cough
  • Fever
  • Runny nose

Kennel Cough

Kennel cough, frequently caused by the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria, is another illness that presents cold-like symptoms in dogs. Canines with kennel cough are most notably affected with a rasping cough that often brings up phlegm. Secondary symptoms include discharge from the nasal passages and eyes.

In many cases, kennel cough will resolve itself on its own as a dog's immune system attacks and overcomes the invading bacteria. However, if the animal's immune system isn't strong enough to overcome the infection, it can progress into pneumonia. Parainfluenza and adenovirus can cause kennel cough.

Key symptoms include:

Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is a systemic and highly contagious disease. It is one of the viruses dogs are routinely vaccinated against. The virus is easily spread via the fine vapor in an infected dog's exhale. Distemper is a serious illness that is often fatal. The virus can remain viable in the environment for up to one year. Once a dog contracts this virus, the organism begins to chip away at white cells leaving that dog open to other opportunistic infections such as the diseases mentioned above.

Symptoms to note are:

  • Thick mucus secretions
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Take All Colds Seriously

Keep in mind that a cold is seldom as simple as it seems. Take the condition seriously and provide your pet with veterinary care if you believe it's warranted. Doing so can keep your dog's cold symptoms from developing into a life threatening respiratory infection.

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How to Tell If My Dog Has a Cold