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Respiratory infections in pets

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Pets can pick up respiratory infections from infected animals at kennels, pet day care, or neighborhood visits. Most of these infections in pets are caused by viruses, which do not survive for long periods outside the body.

Respiratory infections in pets are usually divided into upper respiratory and lower respiratory conditions. Upper respiratory infections affect the eyes, nose, and/or throat, including the trachea (windpipe). Lower respiratory infections affect the smaller airways that branch off from the trachea and/or the lungs. Infection of the lower airways and lungs is pneumonia, which is a serious condition that can interfere with your pet's breathing.

Common signs of upper respiratory infection in your pet include red, watery eyes; runny nose; sneezing; and coughing. Viral infections usually cause a watery discharge from the eyes and nose, while bacterial infections are often associated with a thick, snotty discharge. Common signs of lower respiratory infection include coughing, wheezing, and difficult or labored breathing. Fever, decreased activity, and poor appetite may be seen with either condition, but is more common in lower respiratory infection.

Some respiratory infections in pets are caused by bacteria that normally live in the mouth and throat. The irritation associated with viral infection, allergy, dust, smoke, or dry air can damage the tissue in these areas, allowing these bacteria to multiply well beyond their normal levels. Bacterial infections are also common in pets that have problems with their immune system, such as very young or very old pets, pets on a poor nutritional diet, or pets that have cancer. Lower respiratory infections can also be caused by parasites, such as lungworms, or by fungal infections.

Upper respiratory infection is usually diagnosed based on the clinical signs. Your veterinarian will listen to your pet's airways and lungs with a stethoscope to evaluate for signs of pneumonia. Chest x-rays are also valuable in looking for signs of lower respiratory problems.

Treatment includes tender-loving care, such as keeping your pet rested and clean and providing a nutritious diet and free access to fresh water. Your vet may also prescribe medications such as a cough suppressant, decongestant, or expectorant to help relieve your pet's signs and dry up discharges. Remember, you should never give your pet over-the-counter human medications without specific instructions from your veterinarian. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, but your vet may prescribe them if your pet is showing signs of a bacterial infection. Pets with lower respiratory infections or serious upper respiratory infections may require hospitalization so that intravenous fluids, oxygen, or other more extensive support can be provided.

Routine vaccinations can provide protection against some respiratory infections, so you should make sure that your pet is always up-to-date on its shots.

Q&A

What causes respiratory infections?

Most respiratory infections are caused by viruses, which pets can pick up from infected animals at kennels, pet day care, or neighborhood visits. 


What is the difference between an upper and lower respiratory infection?

Upper respiratory infections affect the eyes, nose, and/or throat, including the trachea (windpipe).  Lower respiratory infections affect the deeper, smaller airways and/or the lungs, causing conditions such as bronchitis or pneumonia. 


Are all respiratory infections caused by viruses?

Some respiratory infections are caused by bacteria that live normally in the mouth and throat, but that multiply out of control when respiratory tissues are irritated or damaged (eg, from viral infection or  allergy).  Bacterial infections are also common in pets with weakened immune systems (eg, aged pets or those with cancer).  Parasites such as lungworms can also infect the lower respiratory tract. 


How are respiratory infections treated?

Treatment includes supportive care such as keeping your pet rested with access to fresh water and nutritious food.  Your vet may also prescribe medications to make your pet more comfortable (eg, cough suppressant) or antibiotics for secondary bacterial infection.  Pets with serious infections that make breathing difficult may need to be hospitalized for more extensive supportive care.


Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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