Kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that affects dogs. Here is what you need to know about kennel cough, including symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
Kennel cough, which is also known as infectious canine tracheobronchitis or bordetellosis, is an extremely contagious respiratory illness that causes inflammation of the larynx, trachea, throat, and lungs in dogs. Kennel cough is the common name given to canine infectious respiratory disease (CIRD) complex.
Kennel cough can be caused by multiple different bacteria and viruses, similarly to how the common cold is caused by different viruses in humans. However, one of the most common causes of kennel cough is a bacterium called Bordetella bronchiseptica (kennel cough is often referred to as Bordetella).
Many times that dogs are infected with the Bordetella bacteria, they become more susceptible to other viral infections that contribute to kennel cough like canine adenovirus, canine distemper, canine herpesvirus (in young puppies), canine respiratory coronavirus, parainfluenza, reovirus, and mycoplasma canis (a single-cell organism that isn't a virus or bacterium).
Kennel cough is spread when dogs inhale the bacterium or virus particles and it makes its way to the respiratory tract. While the respiratory tract is usually lined with mucus that catches infectious particles, it can become weakened and cause dogs to become prone to infection.
Kennel cough is spread through airborne droplets, direct contact, and touching infected surfaces. Something as simple as sniffing another dog or being near a coughing dog can cause them to fall ill.
Dogs most at risk for infection are puppies, pregnant dogs, senior dogs, immuno-compromised dogs, and dogs with respiratory illnesses. Kennel cough is found around the world and most dogs will be exposed to the Bordetella at some in their lifetime (with many becoming infected), especially if they are exposed to dogs outside of the home. Common reasons they can contract kennel cough can be due to the following reason:
Kennel cough is typically not dangerous and usually only causes a cough. If a dog has a weaker immune system, kennel cough can develop into a more serious condition like pneumonia and there are strains that cause severe infections.
The incubation period for kennel cough is around 2 to 14 days before dogs begin showing symptoms; some dogs may even just be carriers of the infection for months before even showing symptoms. Kennel cough usually runs its course in 2 to 3 weeks if it's not a complicated case in which the dog is fairly active, healthy, and functional. Serious cases, in which the illness progresses to pneumonia and fever, will need treatment.
Clinical symptoms of kennel cough to watch out for include:
If the infection progresses, symptoms can include pneumonia, fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, and death. However, in most cases, dogs will not have any serious symptoms.
Aside from a dry cough, which appears when the throat is rubbed and occurs during or after exercise, there is another sound to be aware of, something that sounds like a "reverse sneeze." This is sometimes mistaken for a cough, choking sound, sneezing, retching, or other types of respiratory distress. It's generally a post-nasal drip and considered fairly normal, especially for small dogs. This sound typically only requires medical attention if it becomes excessive and is followed by gagging, swallowing, or foamy mucus.
It's important to make an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice any symptoms of kennel cough that are causing them to become lethargic or lose their appetite, even if you don't think they are serious. Before you make an appointment, call your veterinarian and inform them that your dog has been coughing since they may ask you to wait in an area away from other dogs.
Your veterinarian will ask you about your dog's symptoms, exposure to other dogs, and health history; they may also order bacterial cultures, blood tests, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) panels, a fecal exam, and/or urinalysis to identify whether your dog is infected, and with which virus or bacteria.
If your dog has serious symptoms such as fever, loss of appetite, or listlessness, X-rays may be used to show if your dog has bronchitis or complications from pneumonia.
If your dog is diagnosed with kennel cough, your veterinarian may recommend different treatments depending on the severity of the infection. While many cases of kennel cough resolve on their own, they may need treatment, which can include:
In severe cases -- such as pneumonia -- your dog may require hospitalization.
You can also take steps to make your dog feel more comfortable, such as keeping them in well-ventilated, humidified areas and having them wear a harness instead of a collar to reduce coughing.
Most healthy dogs can recover fully in three weeks (six weeks if the dog is older or immunosuppressed); however, it's important to visit your veterinarian again if your dog doesn't improve or has worsening symptoms (lack of appetite, listlessness, rapid breathing), especially since it can lead to pneumonia.
Pet insurance can help you cover some or all of the costs of treatment and prevention. Learn about our top providers here.
Prevention is the best way to protect your dog from kennel cough.
Vaccinations are available against some of the viruses that cause kennel cough, such as Bordetella bronchiseptica, canine adenovirus, and canine parainfluenza. These vaccines are often required for dogs staying in kennels where an infection can spread easily.
Additionally, many of these vaccinations (canine adenovirus type 2, canine parainfluenza virus, canine distemper, and canine influenza) are included in the core basic vaccinations (specifically DHPP, or "distemper-parvo shot") and boosters.
There are three different ways a kennel cough vaccine can be administered: through injection, a nasal mist, or by mouth.
Intranasal vaccines can be given as early as 3 weeks of age, oral vaccines can be administered at 8 weeks, and injections can be given after 16 weeks with a second dose given a month later. The nasal and oral kennel cough vaccines provide protection sooner than an injection (as soon as four days) and are typically administered annually, unless the dog is at a higher risk from contracting kennel cough, in which case they can receive it twice a year.
Dogs may experience minor side effects such as sneezing, nasal discharge, or a small lump under the skin at the injection site, but these should clear up on its own after a few days. In rare cases, dogs may experience serious side effects such as anaphylaxis, in which case they should be taken to an animal hospital or veterinarian immediately.
It's still possible for dogs to end up with kennel cough after vaccination, although it will most likely be less severe.
Because kennel cough is so contagious, it's a good idea to keep your dog away from other dogs if they are infected and keep them isolated until they are no longer contagious.
If you have multiple dogs and one contracts kennel cough, it's likely that the others will contract it as well. You may want to keep your dogs separate and deep clean the surfaces, bedding, bowls, and toys to avoid cross-contamination.
Dogs who have contracted kennel cough through the Bordetella bronchiseptica will normally have immunity to reinfection for around a year.
Most kennel cough infections usually resolve in 1 to 3 weeks; in some cases, a longer period of treatment is required.
Kennel cough can be treated with rest, cough medicine, and antibiotics to prevent a secondary infection.
Kennel cough can be contracted at home if dogs are exposed to the virus through other dogs coughing or by coming into contact with the bacteria and virus on surfaces such as food and water bowls and dog toys.