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What is Dry Hacking?

Dry hacking in dogs is a cough that produces a dry, raspy sound, and can alert many dog parents to a potential health issue in their pooch. While infrequent, mild coughing is usually no cause for concern, a prolonged, dry hack is usually indicative of an underlying health issue that needs to be treated, most notably kennel cough.

A dry hack is different from a regular cough in that it is free of mucus, which is why it consistently produces a raspy, scratchy sound. Usually, a dry hack is caused by some kind of inflammation or irritation of the throat and airway.

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Symptoms of Dry Hacking in Dogs

A dry hack itself is often a sign of a specific health condition that is affecting your dog, and is often accompanied by other symptoms that can help a veterinarian diagnose the cause of the hack. Symptoms of a dry hack can include:

  • Dry, scratchy cough
  • Persistent dry hacking that lasts several days, or longer
  • Dry hacking that worsens
  • High-pitched coughing
  • Non-productive coughing
  • Deep, honking sound when coughing
  • Gagging or retching after hacking
  • Throat spasms
  • Hacking after exercise, eating or drinking
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty breathing

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Causes of Dry Hacking in Dogs

While there are several causes of coughing in dogs, dry hacking tends to be indicative of a few specific health issues. These can include:

  • Kennel cough, or infectious tracheobronchitis – This is the most common cause behind dry hacking in dogs. Contracted in public areas such as kennels, animal shelters, dog parks, vet clinics, and groomers, kennel cough is an upper respiratory infection that can be caused by various viruses and bacteria, though the primary source is usually Bordetella.
  • Chronic bronchitis, or COPD – This inflammation of the airway creates a dry, hacking cough that exacerbates with excitement and exercise, and affects breathing. A lifelong condition, COPD worsens over time and can cause tracheobronchial collapse.
  • Tonsillitis – Part of the lymphatic system, the tonsils hang down in the back of the throat and can become inflamed, generally due to another disorder such as continuous vomiting, infection, cleft palate or persistent coughing. A short cough can follow periods of gagging with this condition, along with difficulty swallowing.
  • Heartworm – This parasitic infection transmitted by mosquitoes may cause persistent coughing, along with weight loss, lethargy and a swollen abdomen.
  • Foreign object – A foreign object lodged in the throat can inhibit proper breathing and swallowing, and produce a gagging or violent cough.
  • Reverse sneezing – Many small dogs and brachycephalic breeds can make a coughing or hacking sound that is actually a reverse sneeze. Triggered by mites, allergies or an irritant that causes the throat to spasm, air is inhaled rapidly through the nose instead of expelled out.

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Diagnosis of Dry Hacking in Dogs

When your dog’s dry hacking is consistent, you should see the veterinarian for a proper diagnosis. Be sure to relate any and all symptoms related to the cough, including if your dog has been coughing up blood, foam or mucus, or any other unusual behaviors you’ve noticed. Also include your dog’s diet and eating habits, medical history, activities and attitude changes. After a physical exam, your vet will take the sound of the dry hack, along with any other signs, into consideration, and will order tests to help confirm a diagnosis.

Depending on what your veterinarian suspects to be the cause of the dry hacking, tests can include blood work, urinalysis and fecal testing, blood pressure and oxygen level readings, breathing tests, chest and abdominal CT scans, ultrasounds and X-rays, tracheoscopy or endoscopy, examinations of bacterial cultures, fungal cultures and swabs of fluid taken from the airways, tracheal lavage, antigen tests for heartworms, or rhinoscopy. 

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Treatment of Dry Hacking in Dogs

Once the correct condition is found that is causing the dry hacking, your vet can recommend the appropriate treatment.

Kennel cough

Antibiotics and cough suppressants are usually prescribed to treat kennel cough, but since this is a highly contagious condition, you’ll want to keep your dog away from other dogs until they recover. In some cases, kennel cough can resolve on it own.

Tracheal collapse

Medications that may be prescribed include antibiotics, cough suppressants, inhaled bronchodilators, and steroids to reduce inflammation and control the cough. In some severe cases, surgery to insert stents may be an option. For overweight dogs, a weight loss program including a special diet can be implemented.

Chronic Bronchitis

Most commonly, chronic bronchitis is managed with inhaled steroids and bronchodilators. If your dog is having trouble breathing, they may need oxygen therapy and hospitalization. In cases of a non-productive, dry cough, cough suppressants may also be prescribed.

Tonsillitis

Since tonsillitis can itself be caused by several factors, treatments can vary. Often, antibiotics are prescribed to take care of any bacterial infections or dental issues. Pain relievers may be needed to help the dog swallow until they recover. The tonsils will only be removed if tumors are present, or if inflammation is prohibiting proper breathing.

Heartworm

Parasitic medications that are used to prevent heartworm infections are usually prescribed to prevent worms from maturing and to kill the adults that are present. Depending on the severity of the infestation, your dog may need hospitalization if the disease has progressed and is causing a swollen abdomen or heart failure, or if treatment causes circulatory shock. Some medications will need to be injected and can be painful, in which case, pain medication may also be prescribed.

Foreign object

Once the nature and location of the foreign object has been discovered through imaging, the best course of removal is discussed. Endoscopic removal is minimally invasive, while surgical removal is used of the object cannot be removed through endoscopic means. Both methods require anesthesia.

Reverse sneezing

If the reverse sneezing is caused by parasites or mites, treatment aims to eliminate these causes, such as with antihistamines or mite medications. Polyps or growths that are causing the phenomenon may be removed. For reverse sneezing without a known cause, treatment is generally not required as the condition is not life-threatening. 

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Recovery of Dry Hacking in Dogs

Recovery is dependent on the cause of the dry hacking and its severity. With most causes and treatments, dry hacking can be treated and managed safely through medications, soft diets until recovered and other considerations. In cases where infections are the underlying cause, antibiotics can usually clear up the infection and bring the dog back to health.

If surgery is needed, such as for a foreign object removal or to fix a collapsing trachea, anesthesia can carry its own risks to be discussed with your veterinarian. After surgery, you’ll need to clean and monitor incision sites, and continue to give medications as needed.

Some conditions are chronic and will need to be managed throughout the lifetime of your dog, such as chronic bronchitis, which may need ongoing medications and other treatments, and tracheal collapse, which can be managed through special harnesses that take the pressure off the neck and a diet that helps to manage weight.

There are vaccinations available for kennel cough that can prevent or lessen the severity of infection, though your dog may still catch it. Limiting their exposure to public areas that dogs frequent, such as groomers, kennels and dog parks, can lower their chances of contracting it.

Recovery from heartworm is often dependent on the severity of the infestation before treatment begins. Be sure to confine your dog while undergoing treatment as activity can cause problems related to an embolism. Once recovered, be sure to prevent another heartworm infestation with preventative medications.

Dry hacking can be expensive to treat. If you suspect your dog is at risk of developing a condition that leads to dry hacking, start searching for pet insurance today. Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!

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Cost of Dry Hacking in Dogs

The average cost of treating dry hacking in dogs ranges from $300 to $4500. 

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