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nothing to cough at: a primer on pneumonia from petplan pet insurance

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

Recently, my 2-year-old son had a runny nose, which turned into a cough, which quickly turned him into a feverish, lethargic child. A visit to the pediatrician revealed that what started out as a “minor” cold had morphed into pneumonia.

While our pets aren’t prone to the colds that we occasionally suffer from, they do get pneumonia, and it turns out that the symptoms of pneumonia in dogs and cats are very similar to the ones that we experience, too. Cough, fever, decreased appetite and lethargy are pneumonia’s most common clinical signs in pets and humans alike.

Pneumonia, like bronchitis, is a lung infection. But while bronchitis is the inflammation of the airways in the lungs, pneumonia should be thought of as an inflammation of the tissues surrounding those airways. Often, the two go hand in hand (or paw in paw, as the case may be), and when it does, we call it bronchopneumonia.

Though a persistent cough is the hallmark of pneumonia, a coughing pet does not necessarily have pneumonia. Kennel cough causes a very distinct, very persistent cough, but very few cases actually progress to pneumonia. Pneumonia is more likely to be the culprit if a coughing patient has a history of megaesophagus, as well as kittens or adult cats with severe upper respiratory infection, or when coughing is accompanied by a fever.

There are many types of pneumonia in dogs and cats. Here are some most commonly seen in our pets:

  • Fungal: We’ve discussed examples of these kinds of pneumonias in the blog series on fungal pneumonias. Coccidioides and Cryptococcus are two common causes of fungal pneumonia.

  • Viral: Canine distemper and canine influenza viruses can cause pneumonia, as can the viruses that cause feline upper respiratory infections.

  • Parasitic: Lungworms are common culprits, as are other parasites that might migrate through the tissues of the lungs.

  • Bacterial: Bacterial infections generally occur secondary to other causes, like the ones listed above or as in the case of pneumonia due to aspiration in patients with megaesophagus. 

Treatment of pneumonia will depend on the underlying cause. Antibiotics are typically administered regardless, as bacterial infections are notorious for setting up shop while the immune system is busy fighting other viral or fungal invaders. Antibiotics can be given orally, though an IV catheter, or through a nebulizer. Nebulization of antibiotics allows them to be inhaled, where they do their work in the lungs themselves. Believe me when I tell you that I have now learned that I would choose to nebulize a wild cat over my 2-year-old son any day of the week!

Pneumonia can run the gamut from mild to critical in terms of severity. Dogs and cats with mild cases will still eat and drink and can generally be managed at home. If you’re managing your pneumonia patient at home, you may find coupage to be helpful. Cupping your hand and gently patting your dog or cat’s chest will help dislodge respiratory secretions, making coughing more productive.

Some patients with more severe cases will require hospitalization for IV fluids and antibiotics, while the most severe cases will need oxygen therapy and intensive care in the hospital. These medical therapies can add up over time, causing potential financial stress on top of the stress of worrying about your sick pet. Pet health insurance can ease those worries and take finances out of the equation.
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Chris AshtonCo-Founder and Co-CEO of Petplan Pet Insurance
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Visit your vet at least once a year to keep your pet protected from preventable diseases.