Runny Nose in Dogs: Causes, Treatments, and More
Dogs are known for having wet noses. But what about a runny nose? Is it normal, or does it indicate a health problem?
Here are some important things to know about your dog’s sniffer, what to watch for, and how to know when a runny nose is a concern.
Is It Normal for My Dog to Have a Runny Nose?
It’s a misconception that a dry nose in dogs means something is wrong. A canine’s nose can be warm, cold, wet, or dry, depending on the circumstances. For example, many dogs have a warm, dry nose after waking up from a nap and an extra wet nose when running around outside.
Rather than just looking at their nose, look at the big picture of how your dog is doing. If your pup is feeling well and simply has a bit of clear discharge, it might be okay to monitor them for a few days.
An uncomfortable cough, nasal discharge that is getting thicker or has any color to it, or symptoms of illness warrant a vet visit as soon as possible.
Common Causes of a Runny Nose in Dogs?
Here are some of the most common causes of nasal discharge in dogs…
Just cooling off. Dogs don’t sweat over their whole bodies like humans do. Therefore, in warm weather or when they’re running and playing a lot, dogs pant and lick their noses to cool down. Their nose might become runny with clear liquid, too. This all helps with evaporative cooling. However, it’s not nearly as efficient as sweating. So keep an eye on your pup and know what’s normal for them, to prevent them from overheating.
Environmental allergies. Seasonal allergies often show up in dogs as skin, ear, or digestive problems. However, it’s not unusual for our canine companions to also have a bit of sneezing, clear nasal discharge, or red, watery eyes as a reaction to pollen, dust mites, or other allergens.
Inhaled irritants. Just like humans, dogs might develop sneezing, nasal irritation, or other respiratory symptoms due to dust, smoke, strong chemical smells (cleaning supplies, etc.), or even perfumes.
Upper respiratory tract infections, which might include…
Viral infections. Common examples include canine influenza virus and canine parainfluenza virus. Canine distemper virus, while less common nowadays thanks to routine canine vaccinations, is very serious. It also causes digestive and neurological symptoms and can be fatal.
Bacterial infections. The most common is probably Bordetella bronchiseptica, which also tends to cause a honking cough. This disease is often referred to as kennel cough. However, the term ‘kennel cough’ can also be used to describe a set of respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, etc.) caused by one or more types of viral or bacterial infections. Dogs with viral infections also commonly develop secondary bacterial infections.
Fungal infections. The risk of fungal infections, as well as the type of fungus that causes infections, varies a lot depending on where you live. But in some parts of the country, fungal infections of the nasal cavity do occur.
Nasal polyps, masses, or cancer. Tumors or masses in the nose can be benign or malignant. In the worst cases, cancer located in the nose or muzzle area can be very aggressive and lead to death. With nasal tumors or growths, pet owners might be more likely to see symptoms from just one nostril, or in some cases bleeding from the nose.
Nasal mites. Yes, there is a type of parasite that can affect a dog’s nose.
Foreign objects. Since dogs sniff everything, it is possible for them to get foreign bodies stuck in their nasal passages, such as grass awns.
Dental disease. Severe dental or periodontal disease can cause oronasal fistulas, meaning food and saliva can travel from the mouth into the nasal passages. This can also happen with trauma (for example, chewing a stick that punctures the roof of the mouth and enters the nose).
Cleft palates. Some puppies are born with genetic holes in the roof of their mouth that allow food, water, and saliva to pass through into the nose.
Blood clotting disorders and toxicities. Certain toxic substances like rat poison interfere with blood clotting, which might cause nose bleeds. Some genetic conditions and infectious diseases (especially infections carried by ticks) can also cause abnormal bleeding.
Accompanying Symptoms and What They Might Mean
Here are a few common symptoms that might occur along with nasal discharge…
Eye discharge, swelling, and redness. Conjunctivitis—or inflammation of the tissues around the eyes—may accompany environmental allergies, infections, or other health conditions. Red, watery eyes are especially common during allergy season. However, these symptoms can also indicate an eye ulcer (especially if your dog is blinking a lot or holding their eye shut) or other problems that need to be addressed ASAP.
Decreased appetite. A dog might eat less than usual or stop eating entirely. One possible reason is that they feel sick, especially if they have a fever or if their throat is sore from coughing. A very runny or congested nose might also reduce their sense of smell so food isn’t as appealing.
Reverse sneezing. This noisy (but usually harmless) condition occurs more often in smaller breeds. A dog ‘sneezes’ in short, repetitive inhalations, which might sound like they are snorting. These episodes commonly onset with allergens, inhaled irritants, or excitement. While usually not a serious health concern, it’s best to have new or worsening symptoms evaluated by your vet to be on the safe side.
Bad breath. This might be a symptom of dental disease that needs to be addressed. It can also indicate more serious underlying health issues like kidney disease.
Swelling of the muzzle. Both severe dental disease and tumors/cancers of the nose can cause swelling, which is usually localized on just one side of the muzzle. Nasal discharge is often limited to just one nostril rather than both.
A bloody nose. This can happen with significant nasal irritation or inflammation. However, it can also be a symptom of toxic ingestions, blood clotting disorders, tick-borne infections, or even cancer. It’s best to have your pup seen by a vet right away.
Symptoms of illness such as lethargy, vomiting, gagging, weight loss, etc. can all occur with infections and certain other health issues. Simple infections like kennel cough can turn into life-threatening pneumonia in some cases, so it’s important to seek veterinary care if your dog isn’t improving or is feeling ill.
How to Help Your Dog with a Stuffy Nose at Home
Depending on your pooch’s diagnosis and symptoms, here are some things that might help…
Keep your dog indoors as much as possible on high pollen count days.
Avoid nasal irritants and strong odors. Use scent free products. Clean up dust in the home. Don’t smoke.
Use Benadryl or another veterinarian-approved antihistamine for seasonal allergy symptoms. Check with your vet regarding safe formulations and dosages.
Always check with your veterinarian prior to giving any medications or supplements. Some can be toxic to dogs!
Use a humidifier (no medications, just plain filtered water or saline). This can help break up nasal congestion and soothe irritated nasal passages. If you don’t have a humidifier, try keeping your pup in the bathroom when someone takes a hot shower so they can inhale the steam.
If your pup's appetite is affected, try tempting them with a tasty treat like plain chicken and rice. Warm up the food (to room temperature, not too hot) so it’s easier to smell. Also, consider offering soft canned food that’s easy to swallow with a sore throat.
Keep plenty of clean drinking water available.
Use a soft, clean, damp cloth to gently wipe away nasal discharge so it doesn’t accumulate and irritate the skin around the nose.
When to Call the Vet
If your furkid is unwell—lethargic, eating less or not at all, or has any other symptoms that concern you—they need urgent veterinary care. Difficulty breathing and severe illness are emergencies.
Here are a few things that should prompt a call to your veterinarian’s office and possibly an urgent veterinary visit…
Your dog’s runny nose or sneezing persist longer than a few days.
The nasal discharge is getting worse, thicker, smelly, or becoming cloudy, white, yellow, green, or bloody rather than just clear.
Your dog has additional symptoms of illness, such as a fever, appetite loss, weight loss, or eye discharge.
Your pet has a cough, or their breathing is more pronounced or noisy than usual.
When in doubt, call a veterinarian’s office for advice. They can help you determine whether your dog needs to come in right away or not.
Diagnosis and Treatment Options for a Runny Nose in Dogs
Instructions may vary based on your pet’s individual needs. Always follow your vet’s recommendations exactly.
Your dog’s symptoms and physical exam findings are sometimes enough for a veterinarian to prescribe treatments. However, diagnostic testing is often needed to get to the root cause and treat it directly.
Examples of diagnostic tests include infectious disease testing, x-rays of the nasal passages and sinuses, a rhinoscopy (a procedure in which a small camera is inserted into the nose for viewing and collecting samples), allergy testing, blood clotting tests or other blood work, or a biopsy. Some of these tests require general anesthesia.
Depending on the underlying cause, here are some possible treatments…
Anti-inflammatory or cough-relieving medications.
Fluid therapy, hospitalization, or other supportive care for an ill dog.
Treatment directed at a specific underlying cause, such as removing a foreign object from the nose or dental surgery to extract a bad tooth.
How to Prevent Respiratory Issues in Dogs
Always keep your furkid up to date on routine care, including core vaccinations that protect against common respiratory infections.
Should your pup ever develop signs of a respiratory infection, seek care as soon as possible.
If allergies are suspected, they can’t be cured, but your veterinarian can help you develop a plan to avoid your dog’s worse allergens and reduce uncomfortable symptoms. Indoors, eliminate dust and strong scents as much as possible—and never smoke inside where your pet could be exposed.