Ask the Vet: Why Do Dogs Get Runny Noses?

Dr. Ivana Crnec

Dogs get runny noses for a variety of reasons and many may be similar to why humans get them. Unlike humans though, dogs can't just reach out for a Kleenex to temporarily halt the trickle. Without hands, they'll often use their tongue to clean up any discharge. Pay  close to attention to your dog if he has a runny nose. It can sometimes be indicative of serious causes. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec points out several causes of runny noses in dogs.

If you are a devoted dog parent with a tendency to panic when you hear your pup sneeze, chances are a runny nose would have you terrified. Is this fear objective? Is a runny nose normal and self-limiting condition or serious medical issue that requires further investigation? Well… the exact answer is complex and depends on the type of discharge as well as the presence of additional signs and symptoms.

The Function of Mucus

The upper parts of your dog's respiratory tract produce a gel-like substance known as respiratory mucus. The respiratory mucus is a particularly complex biological substance mainly composed by water and glycoproteins. The respiratory mucus has several crucially important roles:

Protection – forms a barrier that protects the epithelial cells from injuries, microorganism invasions and toxic agents.

Hydration – keeps the underlying epithelium sufficiently wet.

 Lubrication – allows smooth movement and minimizes unnecessary friction.

In a nutshell, the nose normally contains a certain amount of mucus. However, if the production of mucus is excessive, it will result in a runny nose.  

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If your dog has a runny nose, get him checked out by your vet to find the root cause

Causes of Runny Noses in Dogs

A runny nose is scientifically called nasal discharge. Generally speaking, a clear nasal discharge is not something you should worry about. However, cloudy, yellow or green and smelly discharge is an objective indicator that something wrong is going on.

Allergies

The most common reason for clear bilateral nasal discharge in dogs is allergies. Dogs can be allergic to a plethora of things such as pollen, mites, dust, human dander, foods, drugs, spores, grasses, smoke and chemicals.

In addition to having a runny nose, a dog troubled by an allergy will show the following signs and symptoms: sneezing, coughing, nosebleeds, eye discharge, breathing issues and itchiness.

Allergies are best treated by avoiding or eliminating the trigger. If that is not possible, or if the trigger cannot be determined, allergies can be managed with drugs such as antihistamines, corticosteroids and immune-suppressants.

Blockages

A unilateral nasal discharge is indicative of blockage. Simply put, something got stuck inside the nostril. Seeds and grass blades are the most common culprits. Dogs with blocked nostrils manifest some additional signs such as sneezing, nosebleeds and pawing at the nose.

If you can see the culprit sticking out you can try removing it with a pair of regular tweezers. Doing this is not advisable if you have a sensitive stomach – even minor nose traumas are followed by substantial bleeding. 

In such cases, the best option would be to call your vet and make an appointment. To remove the blocking object, the vet may need to sedate the dog. Antibiotics are frequently prescribed to prevent infections.

Infections

Mucus or pus discharge usually indicates an infection which can have bacterial, viral or fungal origin. Affected dogs also cough, bleed from their noses, produce a bad odor and due to the postnasal drip – frequently choke.

The treatment varies based on the exact cause. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics while fungal infections require anti-fungal drugs. Dogs suffering from chronic infections sometimes need surgical treatment.

Nasal Polyps and Tumors

Nasal polyps are in fact overgrown mucus-producing glands. A nasal discharge in the form of blood, pus or mucus is often indicative of nasal polyps and tumors. A dog with either of these conditions will breath heavily and noisy. It may also have a unilateral bulge in the nose. Dogs with nasal tumors may have altered appetites.

Nasal polyps require surgical removal. However, it should be noted that they have a tendency to reappear. The treatment for nasal tumors varies – usually benign tumors are surgically removed and cancerous tumors require radiation. Sadly, in cases of cancerous nasal tumors the prognosis is poor.

Nostril Problems

Flat-faced breeds and dogs with soft and floppy nose cartilage have a higher than normal tendency to produce excessive nasal discharge. Noisy breathing is another sign of nostril problems. In most cases, the treatment of choice is surgical repair of the nostrils.

Cleft palate or Oral-nasal Fistulas

The presence of nose discharge right after having a meal can indicate a cleft palate or an oral-nasal fistula. Cleft palate is a condition that develops when the two sides of the dog’s palate fail to properly fuse. An oral-nasal fistula is a hole that develops between the nose and mouth as a result of injury, infection, surgery or tooth decay.

Both cleft palate and oral-nasal fistula require surgical treatment.

Nasal Mites

These microscopic bugs can be encountered in the nose and sinuses. Nasal mites are transmitted through contact with infected dogs. In addition of chronic nasal discharge and occasional nosebleeds, nasal mites also cause severe nasal itchiness and frequent sneezing.

Nasal mites are eliminated by administration of anti-parasitic drugs (topically, orally and in the form of subcutaneous injections).

Distemper

A sticky, yellow and purulent nose discharge can signalize distemper. The overall clinical manifestation varies but usually includes signs like fever, pneumonia and convulsions.

The treatment depends on the exact clinical manifestation. Luckily, distemper can be prevented with regular vaccination.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

This bacterial disease is transmitted through ticks. Affected dogs have nosebleeds, high fever, intermittent coughing and inflamed eyes. They are also lethargic and in pain.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be treated with a long course of antibiotics. Regular use of anti-tick products reduces the risk of contracting this disease. 

Now That You Know...

Your dog's nasal discharge can transform from clear and watery to thick and purulent in a matter of hours. It is therefore important to pay attention to the type of nasal discharge. In fact, the discharge’s physical properties (color, transparency, odor) and its frequency can tell a lot about the actual underlying cause.

If your dog has a runny nose it is important to observe how the condition develops. If necessary, do not hesitate to call the vet. Sometimes there is more then what meets the eye at first sight.

Keep in mind that a dog’s nose has 220 million smell receptors. As humans, we have only 5 million smell receptors. Therefore, a dog dealing with a runny nose has a more difficult time than a man dealing with a runny nose. 

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

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