Dog Runny Nose, Stuffy Nose and Discharge


Does your dog have a runny nose? Perhaps you’ve noticed them sneezing or rubbing their face more often. Nasal discharge in dogs has a variety of causes, ranging from the basics like allergies, to more severe issues such as illness or infection. Learn more about why your dog may have the sniffles, and how you can help get them feeling better.

What Is Nasal Discharge in Dogs?

Nasal discharge is the dripping of liquid from the nostril. It can have a variety of colors, ranging from clear, to cloudy, to green or yellow. The viscosity, or thickness, of the discharge can also range from thin and clear, to thick and sticky. This discharge is made up of a variety of things, including dead cells such as white blood cells fighting infections, dead bacteria or viruses, cells that treat inflammation, and more.

Dog Runny Nose – What to Watch Out For

While the symptoms that coincide with nasal discharge can help narrow down its cause, there are a few general signs to look out for that warrant a trip to the vet. The first is the presence of blood in the discharge. This can indicate serious injury to the face or nose, or something bleeding within the nose. If your dog is pawing at their face, rubbing it on things, or whining, this could indicate pain. Other issues include if your dog’s nose or face is swelling, hot to the touch, or your dog won’t let you touch them. These may also indicate pain, infection, or a severe allergic reaction that should be treated right away.

Nasal Discharge in Dogs — Causes

Here are some of the most common causes behind runny nose, or nasal discharge in dogs:

Allergies

Allergies are one of the most common causes of nasal discharge in dogs. Generally, the discharge will be clear or slightly cloudy. This is a key difference from infections, where discharge is usually green, yellow, or discolored. Your dog may also sneeze, have discharge from the eyes that is also clear, or have redness or irritation of the skin on the face or body. In most cases, allergies that cause nasal discharge are environmental, due to pollens, dust, etc. Skin allergies from food can cause discharge, however full-body skin issues, GI issues, and other systemic issues are more common.

Diagnosis involves ruling out any other potential causes, such as something stuck in the nose, an acute allergic reaction from a bite or sting, and underlying illness. A history of where your dog has been, such as running outside in the grass or being in a dusty room, can also narrow down allergies as a cause.

Conservative treatment starts with over the counter allergy medications such as Benadryl and Zyrtec. From there, your vet may try prescription medications like Apoquel or Atopica which address the underlying itchiness and inflammation. If the allergies are severe, a referral to a veterinary allergist is a good idea for more specialized testing and treatment. Prevention can be difficult since allergies are the body’s overreaction to normal things. However, avoiding allergen triggers and wiping down your dog’s paws and coat when they come in from the outside can reduce symptoms.

Inflammation and Irritation

Dog runny nose with clear discharge
Dog runny nose, clear discharge

Inflammation of the nasal passages, due to allergies, infection, or systemic illness, can lead to nasal discharge. This is less common as a trait on its own, and often in conjunction with other underlying illnesses. You may see cloudy, clear, or discolored discharge, or even blood-tinged discharge coming from the nose. You may also see swelling of the nose or face, redness around the nose or face, or even full-body redness and irritation.

Diagnosing inflammation involves both a full-body examination, as well as examining the nasal passages. Ruling out issues such as infections, foreign bodies, and other issues can help narrow down the cause behind the inflammation. General irritation from allergens or foreign bodies can be treated with over the counter medications, prescription steroids such as prednisone, and the removal of the irritant.

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Foreign Bodies

Foreign bodies are another common cause of nasal discharge in dogs. Often, grass seeds, small sticks, and other small items can get caught in the nose, especially in spring. Running around through tall grasses or sniffing at seeds or other debris can easily cause them to get lodged. Often, you’ll see nasal discharge that is clear, or blood-tinged. Your dog may paw at their nose, attempt to sneeze without success, or make a snuffling, snorting noise. Larger foreign bodies may cause cuts or wounds to appear around the nostrils, or cause swelling of the nose and snout.

Your vet will use a scope in order to look at your dog’s nasal passages if a foreign body is suspected. From there, they can use a specialized long needle-plier to safely remove the object if it can be. In most cases, your dog will be sedated during this procedure in order to avoid bumping and movement. From there, pain medication or antibiotics may be needed until the nose is fully healed.

NEVER attempt to pull out a foreign body in your dog’s nose on your own. Doing so could lead to injury, especially if the object snaps in two, if your dog moves, or if there are thorns or other sharp objects present.

Prevention can be difficult, but avoiding grassy areas while they are seeding, keeping your dog on a leash in brushy woods, and taking precautions when out on trails or wooded areas can all help. Inspecting your dog’s nose, mouth, paws, and face when coming in from walks can also help catch foreign bodies before they become a problem.

Viral Illnesses

Like humans, viral illnesses in dogs can cause respiratory symptoms, including nasal discharge. Often, other symptoms are present, such as fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, eye discharge, and in severe cases, wheezing or coughing. In dogs, four viruses are the most common cause of discharge: distemper, adenovirus, parainfluenza, and bordetella (kennel cough). They can cause severe symptoms, often first presenting as respiratory illness. From there, in the case of distemper, they may progress to GI symptoms, and finally neurologic symptoms such as seizures, tremors, or coma.

Most viral illnesses are diagnosed by ruling out other problems such as allergies or infections. Visual inspection and symptoms can also narrow down the cause. In the case of distemper, PCR testing can be done to confirm it. Often, your vet will recommend other tests such as blood work at the same time. Serious cases may also require hospitalization and palliative care. This includes medications to treat secondary infections, stop vomiting or GI symptoms, reduce seizures, and prevent dehydration and loss of nutrition through IV fluids.

Luckily, most viral illnesses are preventable with annual vaccination. Puppies should have a series of vaccines including the rabies vaccine, over the first few months of their lives, then annual or every three-year vaccines afterward, depending on the manufacturer your veterinarian uses. While vaccination is not 100%, it can both prevent contracting viral illnesses, as well as reduce their severity and duration. In some cases, such as distemper, vaccinating even after your dog has shown symptoms can still help reduce illness severity.

Infections Around the Nose

Bacterial infections are often secondary to other issues, such as prolonged irritation or underlying viral illnesses. However, some bacterial infections, such as the bacterial form of bordetella (kennel cough) can present without any additional illnesses. Bacterial infections are often distinct from irritation or allergies by the color of your dog’s nasal discharge. Green or yellow discharge often indicates bacteria are present. You may also see your dog cough, sneeze, paw at their face, or have eye discharge as well.

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Visual examination is best for determining if there is an infection present. Your vet may also recommend bloodwork, X-rays of the chest (to rule out lung or heart issues), and other additional testing to look for underlying causes in addition to the infection. From there, they can treat both the underlying cause and infection together. Often, general oral antibiotics are the treatment of choice, such as amoxicillin or cephalexin. Keeping your dog’s nose clean and clear can also help reduce discomfort.

Preventing secondary infections can be difficult, however, treating any underlying illnesses right away may help reduce the chances of a secondary infection taking hold. In the case of bacterial bordetella, vaccination can help reduce the chances of contracting it.

Internal and External Parasites

When you think of parasites, you may think of fleas or ticks, rather than parasites that can affect the respiratory tract. While rare, parasites such as nasal mites and lungworms can infect your dog, leading to nasal discharge. In addition to discharge, you may see your dog paw at their nose or face, or have swelling around the face and nose. With lungworms that lodge in the trachea, your dog may also cough or wheeze.

Your vet can take a look in your dog’s nose with an endoscope for signs of nasal mites. From there, they can use a flush to clean out the nasal passages and check for any mites within the fluid. With lungworms, your vet can take a stool sample to look for parasite eggs. Selamectin (Revolution) can be used to treat nasal mites. Dewormers such as Drontal, Nex-guard, and Heartgard can both treat, and prevent lungworms. However, in severe lungworm infections, surgery may be needed to remove any nodules from the trachea.

Prevention is easy with regular monthly preventatives, as well as avoiding feces or animal carcasses on walks where your dog frequents.

Tumors and Growths

Tumors and growths on the nose and within the nasal cavity can lead to nasal discharge. In addition, you will see other signs, such as swelling of the nose or snout, or visible growths on the nostril or coming out of it. The tumors may open into weeping wounds, have irregular margins, or be a different color than your dog’s nose (IE dark black growths on a pink nose, or weird gray growths on a black nose).

Diagnosing involves many factors. The first, if the tumor is clearly visible, is to take a sample of it, either via a fine-needle aspirate, or a biopsy of the tissue. From there, it can be looked at under a microscope or sent to a lab for testing. If the tumor is within the nasal passages, a scope can be used to both look at, and take a sample of the growth, generally under sedation. Nasal flushes can also be used to gather tissue samples within the nose.

Treatment depends greatly on what the tumor is. If the tumor is visible or in an easy to get to location, surgery may be all that is needed to remove it. In the case of harder to treat locations, a referral to a veterinary oncologist for chemotherapy or other treatment may be needed. Steroids may also help with secondary symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing, and inflammation in cases where treatment of the tumor is unavailable, but your dog still has a good quality of life.

Pneumonia and Lung Disease

While nasal discharge is a less common symptom of pneumonia or lung disease, it can still occur. These illnesses affect the lungs via infections, viral illnesses, aspiration (inhaling liquids or solids into the lungs), or systemic disease. Your dog may struggle to breathe and have their gums turn pale or blue. They may also cough or wheeze, or have a change in appetite and behavior. Dogs may also show exercise intolerance, tiring out quickly or becoming lethargic. If you notice your dog struggling to breathe or turning blue or pale, seek emergency care immediately.

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Physical examination, including listening to the lungs and heart, is a first diagnostic step. From there, your vet may order bloodwork to check for infections and viruses. X-rays and ultrasound can also be useful for checking the clarity of the lungs for fluid buildup or injury. In the case of emergency situations, triage is first. Your dog will likely be put into an oxygen cage or chamber to help them breathe while tests are run and an IV catheter is placed to give medications more quickly.

Treatment can range from antibiotics and bronchodilators to help with breathing and treat infection, to long-term medications to treat underlying lung diseases. In more severe cases, long-term hospitalization with supplemental oxygen and IV medications can help. In rare cases, ventilators may be used until your dog is able to breathe on their own.

Genetic Deformities

Congenital deformities, or deformities present at birth, may cause nasal discharge as a symptom. Often, other symptoms present first, such as visible deformities of the nostrils, snout, or upper palate in the mouth. Puppies may have trouble nursing and aspirate milk into the respiratory tract, or may have difficulty breathing. You may also notice strange snuggling or wheezing noises if air is being directed the wrong way through the nose. Problems with the tear ducts, which drain into the nasal cavity, can also cause discharge from the eyes or nose.

Visual inspection of newborn puppies is best for catching deformities. In some cases, such as with a cleft palate, surgical correction is the best option. However, this is difficult to do on newborn puppies, and so many puppies are tube-fed until large enough for surgery, or the cleft closes on its own with age. In the case of non-obstructive deformities, such as with the nostrils, no action may need to be taken.

Traumatic Injury

While nasal discharge may be the last thing you notice in the case of traumatic injury, it can still be a sign there is something wrong ongoing. If your dog has bumped into something recently and now has discharge from the nose or eyes, it could indicate an injury to the nose or nasal passages. Visible wounds on the face or nostrils may also indicate an injury.

Your vet can take a look at your dog’s nose, snout, and inside the nasal cavity to check for injury. Depending on the severity, conservative treatment such as pain medications or antibiotics may be all that is needed. If the injury has caused a visible deformity that won’t heal on its own, surgical correction to suture or repair the nose may be recommended. Prognosis of facial injuries is often good, even in cases where the injury to the face, jaw, and surrounding tissue is severe.

Nasal discharge in dogs can have a wide variety of causes. Luckily, most are easily treatable with a trip to your veterinarian, or regular annual vaccination. If you notice your dog’s nose running, be sure to keep note of any other symptoms, such as coughing or sneezing, as well as the consistency of the discharge. Taking quick action can help get your dog feeling better and stop the sniffles.

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