The goals of treating uncomplicated cases of canine upper respiratory tract (URT) infection are to suppress the dog’s cough, relieve other symptoms of illness and prevent secondary bacterial infections from developing. Supportive care and antibiotics are the main treatment options in most cases. Respiratory infections that are caused by nasal or lung parasites are treated with anti-parasitic medications.
Most simple cases of canine URT infection are treated on an outpatient basis. Supportive therapies include: providing excellent nutritional support through a high-quality diet and free access to fresh water; exercise restriction and enforced rest for at least 2 to 3 weeks in uncomplicated cases (2 to 4 months in more serious cases); and housing the dog in a clean, quiet, warm, comfortable and non-stressful environment away from other pets. Because most of the pathogens that cause URT infections in dogs are highly contagious, veterinarians typically prefer that owners treat their dogs at home whenever possible.
In complicated cases, medical treatment may be necessary in addition to good supportive care. If a dog develops bronchopneumonia, the therapeutic goals expand to include identifying and eradicating the causative bacterial or viral agents, reducing and ultimately eliminating the cough, sneezing and other symptoms; improving air flow and ease of breathing; and resting the dog so that the lining of its upper respiratory tract can repair. Dogs with severe symptoms may require hospitalization, so that they can receive intravenous fluids and other appropriate medical and nutritional support.
Drug therapy may include anti-inflammatories, antitussives (cough suppressants), bronchodilators and/or antibiotics. Mild cases can be treated initially with anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Using steroids and NSAIDs at the same time is discouraged, because the combination heightens the risk of gastric ulceration. Uncomplicated cases of dry, nonproductive coughing may benefit from cough suppressants (antitussive medications), such as butorphanol, hydrocodone bitartrate or dextromethorphan. Cough suppressants normally are not recommended for dogs with pneumonia, as it usually is better for a dog with pneumonia to cough productively, if possible. If a dog has difficulty breathing, bronchodilators may provide temporary relief.
In cases that involve pneumonia or other advanced respiratory disease, the attending veterinarian may recommend empirical antibiotic treatment while waiting for the results of culture and sensitivity on samples of upper respiratory tract secretions. The results of those tests will identify which pathogens are causing the dog’s illness, and will enable the veterinarian to select the best antibiotic or antiviral therapy. Empirical antibiotic therapy is a “let’s-take-our-best-guess” approach that often is successful and has few, if any, adverse side effects (except for possible gastrointestinal upset and contribution to antibiotic resistant strains of infectious bacteria). Dogs with bacterial pneumonia usually are treated with antibiotics for 1 to 4 weeks after the radiographic signs of pneumonia are resolved. A veterinarian is the best person to recommend an appropriate treatment protocol for a dog showing signs of upper respiratory tract disease.
If a respiratory infection is caused by lung flukes or canine nasal mites, which is uncommon in North America, a course of anti-parasitic medication may be prescribed. While there currently are no drugs approved for use in dogs for the treatment of nasal mites, many veterinarians recommend ivermectin or milbemycin oxime as an off-label treatment. Both of these drugs typically provide prompt resolution of clinical signs.
Owners of dogs with upper respiratory tract infections should be conscious of the fact that their dogs probably are infectious to other dogs for several months after their own symptoms are resolved.
Dogs with URT infections usually have a good to excellent prognosis, as long as the infection is diagnosed and treated promptly. The outlook becomes more guarded if the infection progresses to bronchopneumonia.