5 Natural Alternatives To Cough Medicine For Dogs

cough medicine for dogs

When your dog has a cough or cold-like symptoms, cough medicine may seem like a good solution. But cough medicine contains many ingredients that can be dangerous for your dog. And yes, there are some “dog-friendly” options vets will prescribe … but even these can be harmful. 

So this post explains why you should stay away from the cough medicine when it comes to your dog. You also read about some natural alternatives that are safe and effective when your dog gets a cough or cold. 

But first, let’s talk about what can cause a dog to cough.

Why Do Dogs Cough?

When your dog coughs, you may think your dog has a cold, especially as the temperature starts to drop. And that may be exactly what it is. Like humans, there are many viruses that can cause coughing and cold-like symptoms in dogs. But it’s also important to remember cold symptoms don’t necessarily mean your dog has a cold

Coughing, sneezing, runny noses and congestion could happen for many reasons … including allergies, viruses or bacterial infection. But they can also be a sign of a serious disease, including heart disease, lung problems or laryngeal paralysis. So it’s important to find out the source.

That’s why it’s so important to track your dog’s symptoms. And why you may need to reach out to your holistic vet if they worsen or don’t clear up in a few days.

Why Cough Medicine Isn’t A Good Idea 

When a dog starts to cough, some pet owners reach for cough medicine to ease their pet’s discomfort. But cough medicine may not be the right choice. It can contain toxic ingredients that could make your dog much sicker than he already is. 

Here are just some of the ingredients in cough medicine that could hurt your dog. 


Acetaminophen is the active ingredient pain reliever like Tylenol. While some vets prescribe Tylenol for dogs, its safety is questionable. And if you give your dog too much it can lead to acetaminophen poisoning. (Read more about Tylenol for dogs below).

Signs of poisoning usually don’t show until the dosage exceeds 100 mg/kg. But reactions can vary based on the age, health and size of your dog. Even a single dose can be enough to cause poisoning in small dogs or puppies. 

Buckley’s Complete contains 325 mg of acetaminophen per tsp. Tylenol Complete Cold has 500 mg per Tbsp. To put that in perspective – a single dose of either of these can poison puppies and toy breeds.

RELATED: Is Tylenol really safe for dogs?


Some cough medicines, like those made by Advil, contain Ibuprofen. Ibuprofen helps manage pain and inflammation but it’s also highly toxic to dogs.  In fact, research has shown signs of toxicity for doses as low as 25 mg/kg. Reactions include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. At larger doses, ibuprofen can cause …

You should NEVER give your dog anything that contains ibuprofen, for any reason. 


Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant also found in some cold medicines. A single tablet with 30 mg of pseudoephedrine is enough to cause toxicity in small dogs.

Symptoms of pseudoephedrine toxicity include hyperactivity, increased heart rates and tremors. There’s a reason people use pseudoephedrine to make drugs like methamphetamine! It’s basically “speed”.


Xylitol is a naturally occurring alcohol found in fruits and vegetables. It’s commonly used as a sweetener and is in some cough medicine and cough drops. Like ibuprofen, xylitol is highly toxic to dogs (1). 

Xylitol is rapidly absorbed into your dog’s bloodstream. Your dog’s body thinks that it has ingested glucose and releases large amounts of insulin. This spike causes a significant drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and liver false. Xylitol poisoning can be life-threatening and it can happen at doses as low as 100 mg/kg.

RELATED: Find out where xylitol could be hiding in your home …  


Some medicines, especially those that give you a daytime boost, may contain caffeine. Dogs are much more sensitive to caffeine than people. If your dog does get caffeine poisoning, he may experience vomiting, hyperactivity, or seizures.


Nighttime or PM medicines usually contain antihistamines. These are normally used for allergy symptoms, but because of their sedative effects, they’ve become popular in other medications. The most common antihistamines in cough medicine are diphenhydramine or doxylamine. 

If used too often, these antihistamines can …

  • Disrupt sleep patterns 
  • Suppress your dog’s natural healing process
  • Lead to long term health problems

RELATED: Learn more about why antihistamines are bad for dogs …


Menthol is in mint plants and is often added to syrup and drops to help ease coughing. While it isn’t toxic to dogs, it may add to their discomfort. Menthol can irritate your dog’s lungs and cause gastrointestinal upset


If you use homeopathic remedies, you’ll definitely want to avoid caffeine and menthol. Both can antidote homeopathic remedies! 


Cold and cough medicines also contain alcohol in different amounts. While most cough medicine has low percentages of alcohol, some medicines (like Nyquil Liquid) may contain 10% or more. 

Artificial Color 

Artificial colors help make cough medicine look more appealing. But they’re also linked to hyperactivity, allergies and cancer.

You should avoid giving your dog anything with artificial colors

What About “Dog-Friendly” Cough Medicine?

There are some cough medicines for dogs that conventional veterinarians may deem safe. The two most common are dextromethorphan and guaifenesin. But just because they’re prescribed by vets, doesn’t mean you want your dog to take them. 

Why Dextromethorphan Isn’t Good Your Dog’s Cough

Dextromethorphan is primarily used for dry hacking coughs. It will help stop your dog’s cough to help soothe his chest and throat. It does this by suppressing the cough center of your dog’s brain to help stop him from coughing. 

Popular brands with dextromethorphan are Robitussin-DM, Benylin and Delsym. You can buy medicines with this drug specifically made for dogs. And dextromethorphan is sometimes used in combination with acetaminophen.  

Dextromethorphan has many negative side effects ranging from nausea and diarrhea to twitching and seizures. And you know it can’t be good when it isn’t recommended for dogs with liver disease, skin allergies or chronic coughs.

Dextromethorphan can also interact with MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors) drugs for cognitive issues. If your dog takes an MAOI, such as selegiline, he should not use dextromethorphan. 

Other Potential Side Effects

Vomiting, decreased appetite, drowsiness, excessive drooling, increased heartbeat, collapse, muscle tension, incoordination, and abnormal eye movement.

Why You Should Avoid Guaifenesin For Your Dog’s Cough

Vets prescribe guaifenesin to help loosen mucus in the chest and throat. This makes it easier for your dog to cough it out. But guaifenesin also has negative side effects. 

If your dog takes too much, it can cause abnormal breathing, hypothermia and tremors. Guaifenesin is also sometimes used in combination with dextromethorphan. 

Other Potential Side Effects

Vomiting, increased heart rate, changes in blood pressure, vision problems, muscle rigidity, hypothermia and ataxia (staggering or unsteady gait from nervous system degeneration).

Cough Medicine Poisoning 

According to the Pet Poison Helpline, “nearly 50% of all calls received … involve human medications”. Sometimes it’s from accidental overdoses and other times it’s because a dog chewed up a bottle of medicine. Some dogs may even have hypersensitivity to certain medications. 

Whatever the reason, poisoning by medication is a real problem. And that includes cough medicine poisoning. 

If your dog overdoses on cough medicine he may experience nausea and vomiting, nervousness, hallucinations, tremors, and increased heart rate.

Serotonin Syndrome In Dogs

If your dog swallows an extremely large amount of cough medicine, it could lead to serotonin syndrome. Serotonin is a natural mood-enhancing hormone that the body produces. But serotonin used in medicines can be dangerous. Serotonin syndrome is when your dog accumulates high levels of serotonin from medicines like dextromethorphan.

In dogs, too much serotonin can lead to symptoms ranging from confusion and vomiting to seizures and even coma. And, if it’s left untreated, can lead to death. 

To prevent poisoning, serotonin syndrome and other adverse side effects

  • Seal medicine properly when not in use 
  • Be sure to pick up any dropped medication and put in a dog proof bin
  • Store in a high cabinet or drawer your dog can’t reach 

When possible, you also want to avoid using cough medicine for your dog … even the so-called safe ones. While they may help suppress your dog’s cold symptoms, they can also cause their own set of problems … especially if they’re used incorrectly. 

If you must use cough medicine, never give any to your dog without first speaking to your vet. Misuse can cause poisoning, illness and even death. 

To avoid risky ingredients and nasty side effects, you can use natural remedies instead. And that’s what I want to talk about next. 

5 Natural Remedies That Can Help With Your Dog’s Cold 

When it comes to colds and other infections, the first step is prevention. Healthy dogs are less likely to get sick, and if they do, they usually feel better quicker. Making sure your dog’s immune system is in good condition is a great way to keep him healthy (2).

The natural remedies below can help boost your dog’s immune system to prevent illness. And they can help ease his symptoms if he does get sick. Best of all, they’re safe and effective without the risk of side effects.

1. Probiotics And Prebiotics 

Nearly 90% of your dog’s immune system is in his gut and it’s supported by the healthy bacteria that live there.  These healthy bacteria ferment soluble fiber that travels to the colon. This process creates short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that help improve your dog’s health and boost immunity. Here are just some of the beneficial things SCFAs can do …

  • Discourage growth of harmful bacteria
  • Build important T-cells in immune system which reduce inflammation
  • Help body absorb nutrients 
  • Keep the gut lining strong so the bad stuff stays in the gut where it can be properly dealt with 

But for your dog to gain these benefits, he needs a diverse population of beneficial bacteria in his gut. And he needs a source of soluble fiber for them to ferment. This is where prebiotics and probiotics come in. 

Probiotics contain healthy bacteria that colonize in your dog’s gut and provide health benefits. They help diversify the beneficial bacteria and restore his microbiome. (The microbiome is the community of bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms that live in and on your dog). 

Prebiotics are the soluble fiber that beneficial bacteria ferment so that they can produce SCFAs. They help make the probiotics more effective. There are many whole food sources of prebiotics including fermented food, garlic, honey and mushrooms.

Keep reading to find out which of these foods are also natural alternatives to cough medicine.

RELATED: How bacteria support the immune system …

2. Manuka Honey 

Honey can help boost the immune system and soothe cold symptoms. One reason honey is so effective is that it contains hydrogen peroxide (a strong antiseptic). If you use Manuka honey you get even more benefits. 

Manuka honey is from Manuka tree pollen found in New Zealand and Australia. It’s a more potent type of honey because it contains methylglyoxal (MGO), dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and leptosperin

This makes Manuka honey a better antibiotic, antifungal and antiviral than other honeys. In fact, studies (3, 4) show that Manuka honey can be an effective treatment for …

  • The varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox and shingles)
  • Influenza
  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Manuka honey is also packed with antioxidants. And it’s a natural prebiotic that boosts good bacteria in your dog’s gut. Both of these help strengthen your dog’s immune system so that he can better fend off colds and infections. 

Honey can also help soothe your dog’s throat and ease coughs if he does get sick. In one study, researchers compared honey to common cough suppressing drugs, including dextromethorphan. Honey was more effective than these drugs.

How To Feed Manuka Honey 

When buying Manuka honey, you want to use the UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) grading system. The higher the UMF, the more MGO the honey has. 

If you’re looking to boost your dog’s system to prevent virus, daily doses of at least UMF10+ will work. Your dog’s weight determines how much honey you should give. Start with a half dose and gradually increase to the full dose listed below.  

Under 20 lbs … ½ tsp twice daily 
20 to 60 lbs … 1 tsp twice daily 
60 lbs or more … 2 tsp twice daily 

When buying Manuka honey for viral infections, you want a product with at least UMF20+. Talk to your holistic vet about dosing for your dog’s specific situation. 

Cautions: You shouldn’t use Manuka honey for dogs with diabetes. Don’t give to dogs under a year old – Clostridium botulinum spores in the honey can make them sick. 

3. Medicinal Mushrooms 

Medicinal mushrooms are functional foods that provide more benefits than basic nutrition. One of the benefits of mushrooms for dogs is protecting against infections like the cold and flu.

This is because mushrooms contain antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect your dog’s immune cells from damage and boost the immune system. They also contain a prebiotic polysaccharide called beta-glucan. It feeds the healthy bacteria in your dog’s gut, which then secrete metabolites that boost your dog’s health. Some beta-glucan also work directly with immune cells to improve the immune response. 

There are many studies on the benefits of mushrooms for infections. Researchers have found that certain mushrooms like shiitake, reishi and maitake (5, 6) can …

  • Inhibit virus replication and growth 
  • Protect against influenza
  • Stimulate cellular and humoral immune response 
  • Reduce cold symptoms 

How To Feed Your Dog Mushrooms 

The most convenient way to give your dog mushrooms is with a mushroom supplement. If you use a mushroom supplement look for one that isn’t made from mycelium.

Mycelium is like the root of the mushroom and isn’t as rich in beta-glucans. Mycelium is also grown in grains or rice, so they contain grain-derived beta-glucans. That means they lack the immuno-stimulating properties your dog needs to fend off viruses. 

Instead, you want to buy a product made from the full mushroom body that isn’t grown in grain or rice. 

4. Garlic 

Studies show that garlic reduces the likelihood of your dog getting sick. If he does get sick, it can also help reduce symptoms

This is because garlic contains a compound called alliin. When you chop garlic, the alliin combines with enzymes and converts to allicin. Allicin quickly converts into sulfur-containing compounds that boost disease-fighting white blood cells. 

Like honey and mushrooms, garlic is also a whole food source of prebiotics. 

How To Safely Feed Your Dog Garlic 

Garlic is proven by many research studies to help prevent and relieve cold symptoms in people (7  8, 9, 10). When given in appropriate amounts, garlic can be very beneficial to your dog.  

You want to use fresh, raw and organic garlic for the best results (11). Once you have your garlic, peel and mince the cloves. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then measure it out and add it to your dog’s dish. For every 10 lbs, give your dog 1/3 tsp of chopped garlic (fresh, raw and organic).

Caution: There are some dogs who shouldn’t eat garlic. This includes pregnant dogs, puppies, Akitas, Shiba Inus, and dogs on certain medications. 

RELATED: Why garlic is good for your dog … 

5. Homeopathic Remedies 

Homeopathic remedies are safe to use and can be very fast-acting. There are many different choices for coughs, but these are some of the more common options. When choosing the best remedy, focus on the symptoms and not the cause

  • Aconite – good at early stages when it seems like they have something caught in their throat.
  • Drosera – use for dry coughs, violent coughing spells, and a ticklish throat. The cough may be worse when lying down.
  • Rumex crispus – good for coughs that are dry and persistent.
  • Spongia tosta – barking coughs that improve when eating and drinking warm things. Cold food and drinks make it worse and the cough may wake your dog during sleep.

How To Give Your Dog Homeopathic Remedies 

You can buy homeopathic remedies online or at health food stores. They usually come as pellets or granules. Use a 30C or 200C potency.

Once you have your remedy, add 2 or 3 pellets or a few granules to a small glass of water. Avoid touching the remedy as that can negate it. Stir the water vigorously, 10-20 times. 

Use a dropper or tsp to put some of the remedy on your dog’s gums. You can give 3-4 doses in the first 2 hours.  If your dog starts to improve, you can stop dosing as the remedy is working. But you want to redose if the symptoms start to return – it could be five minutes or it could be an hour or days. If you don’t see any improvements, you may want to try a different remedy. 

When using homeopathic remedies for the first time, it can be helpful to work with a professional. There’s a directory of veterinary homeopaths at theavh.org.

RELATED: Learn more about homeopathy … 

Toss The Cold Medicine And Go Natural 

Nobody wants their dog to suffer from coughing and other cold symptoms. But giving your dog cough medicine, especially if it wasn’t recommended by your vet, can be very dangerous. Even medicine that your vet does prescribe can have adverse side effects and risks you need to worry about. 

The good news is there are many natural alternatives. And they not only help reduce symptoms but prevent infection in the first place.  So the next time you reach for the cough medicine, try one of these natural alternatives instead. They’ll help your dog feel better and you won’t have to worry about them making him sicker. 

  1. Piscitelli CM, Dunayer EK, Aumann M. Xylitol toxicity in dogsCompendium: Continuing Education for Veterinarians. 2010 Feb;32(2):E1-4. 
  2. Iddir M, Brito A, Dingeo G, Fernandez Del Campo SS, Samouda H, La Frano MR, Bohn T. Strengthening the immune system and reducing inflammation and oxidative stress through diet and nutrition: considerations during the covid-19 crisisNutrients. 2020 May 27;12(6):1562.
  3. Carter DA, Blair SE, Cokcetin NN, Bouzo D, Brooks P, Schothauer R, Harry EJ. Therapeutic manuka honey: No longer so alternativeFrontiers Microbiology. 2016 Apr 20;7:569. 
  4. Almasaudi SB, Abbas AT, Al-Hindi RR, El-Shitany NA, Abdel-Dayem UA, Ali SS, Saleh RM, Al Jaouni SK, Kamal MA, Harakeh SM. Manuka honey exerts antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities that promote healing of acetic acid-induced gastric ulcer in ratsEvidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2017;2017:5413917. 
  5. Nishihira J, Sato M, Tanaka A, Okamatsu M, Azuma T, Tsutsumi N, Yoneyama S. Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) enhances antibody production in response to influenza vaccination in healthy adult volunteers concurrent with alleviation of common cold symptomsFunctional Foods in Health & Disease. 2017;7(7).
  6. Vetvicka V, Vetvickova J. Immune-enhancing effects of Maitake (Grifola frondosa) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) extractsAnnals of Translational Medicine. 2014 Feb;2(2):14.
  7. Nantz MP, Rowe CA, Muller CE, Creasy RA, Stanilka JM, Percival SS. Supplementation with aged garlic extract improves both NK and γδ-T cell function and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled nutrition interventionClinical Nutrition. 2012 Jun;31(3):337-44. 
  8. Josling P. Preventing the common cold with a garlic supplement: a double-blind, placebo-controlled surveyAdvances in Therapy. 2001 Jul-Aug;18(4):189-93. 
  9. Arreola R, Quintero-Fabián S, López-Roa RI, Flores-Gutiérrez EO, Reyes-Grajeda JP, Carrera-Quintanar L, Ortuño-Sahagún D. Immunomodulation and anti-inflammatory effects of garlic compounds. Journal of Immunology Research. 2015;2015:401630. 
  10. Nantz MP, Rowe CA, Muller CE, Creasy RA, Stanilka JM, Percival SS. Supplementation with aged garlic extract improves both NK and γδ-T cell function and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled nutrition interventionClinical Nutrition. 2012 Jun;31(3):337-44. 
  11. Song K, Milner JA. The influence of heating on the anticancer properties of garlicThe Journal of Nutrition. 2001 Mar;131(3s):1054S-7S. 


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