Dog owner guide to kennel cough and how to prevent it

You can hear it from the clinic waiting room all the way back to the examination rooms. A forceful cough that sounds like a goose honk 😟 As a vet, you think to yourself, another kennel cough dog, that’s the 5th this week… 

I lived in Vienna for 9 years and one of the things I love about the place and people is that it’s normal to take your dog everywhere – to work, restaurants, shopping malls… everywhere. And the dogs are extremely well-adjusted and socialized. They also spend quite some time in the company of other dogs. 
But this type of lifestyle has one not-so-good side effect. You can see infectious diseases coming in waves. If you have one dog with kennel cough, you can expect more of them to show up soon. If you have a gastric virus going around, you know that in a few days, your waiting room will be full of diarrhea dogs 🤷‍♀️

I often get calls from friends that usually go something like this – “Hey, my dog is having this horrible cough, listen to this! He sounds like it’s tearing him apart! What the hell is this?” Well, it’s most probably kennel cough. 

Since kennel cough is so common, I wanted to give you an overview of the disease.

While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.

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What is kennel cough?

Canine infectious tracheobronchitis, commonly known as kennel cough or bordetella, is an infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract. It’s usually a mild and easily treatable disease, similar to the human cold. 

However, sometimes it can lead to more serious health conditions like bronchopneumonia or chronic bronchitis. So it can be dangerous, especially for small puppies.

Dogs of all ages can be affected, but puppies are more prone to severe health problems

If you think your dog might have kennel cough, you should isolate him from other dogs. Not just inside, but also outside, so no playing in the park.

What causes kennel cough in dogs?

Kennel cough can have several different causes

The most common pathogen causing kennel cough is a bacterium called Bordetella bronchiseptica – which is why the disease is sometimes called “bordetella”. 

However, just like the human cold, it can also be caused by viruses (for example canine influenza virus, canine parainfluenza virus, adenoviruses, reoviruses…). 

Usually, what we see is a primary and secondary infection with more than 1 pathogen. This means that the disease is usually caused by a combination of both Bordetella and viruses.

How does a dog get kennel cough?

Kennel cough is a highly contagious disease, that’s mostly spread through direct contact with an infected dog. 

The illness can spread rapidly among dogs housed in close confinement – that’s where the name “kennel” cough comes from.

The dogs inhale bacteria or virus particles into their respiratory system. This causes inflammation of the larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe). 

Stress, exposure to smoke or dust, cold temperatures as well as crowded or poorly ventilated rooms can make dogs more prone to respiratory diseases.

What are the first symptoms of kennel cough?

The classic symptom is a forceful persistent cough that sounds like a goose honk. Sometimes it can be followed by retching and/or gagging. 
If your dog is making noises that sound like he’s hacking or choking, it can be kennel cough. 

Some dogs may also have a runny nose and sneeze a lot.

Actually, think back to the last time you had a cold. Unless things got complicated, your throat was sore and itchy, you had a runny nose, and had to sneeze often to get rid of the mucus. So, there you have it 🙂 🤷‍♀️

In more serious cases, the kennel cough can lead to bronchopneumonia with symptoms that may include fever, anorexia, lack of energy, and weakness. 

Signs of kennel cough in dogs:

  • a loud, hacking cough that often sounds like honking
  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • loss of appetite
  • lethargy
  • fever
Symptoms of mild kennel cough in dogs

Treatment of kennel cough in dogs and puppies

Although the sound your dog is making may sound terrible, the disease usually resolves without treatment within a few weeks (again, think of the human cold). 

We have a saying in my country about the common cold- It takes 7 days without medication or 1 week with medication to get healthy. It’s similar to kennel cough – the body and immune system just need time to get rid of the disease. 

Antitussives (cough medications) can be helpful if the cough is persistent. 

However, sometimes antibiotics are needed to treat more severe cases. 

Most dogs recover within a few weeks, but sometimes it can take up to 6 weeks for the respiratory epithelium to heal fully. 

If your dog has other symptoms than a cough or if he’s not getting better within 3 weeks, please contact your vet. 

How to prevent kennel cough – kennel cough vaccine

There are 3 different types of vaccines – one is injected, one is given by mouth, and one is a nasal spray. All of them have one thing in common – they are effective against the most common kennel cough-causing pathogens, but not against all of them. And although they do help, they cannot guarantee 100% protection against the disease. 

Intranasal and oral kennel cough vaccines are typically given once a year. Dogs at high risk (such as shelter dogs…) can be vaccinated every 6 months if necessary.

I would also recommend vaccinating your dog against distemper, parainfluenza, and CAV-2 (which also provides protection against CAV-1). 

Talk to your vet about the best vaccination schema for your pup. 

Can humans catch kennel cough?

In theory yes, however, studies have shown that there is usually an underlying health condition that makes the infection more likely (see references below). So if you are healthy, it’s very unlikely that you will catch it from your pup. If you need more information please contact your doctor.

You can read more about diseases you can catch from your dog in my other article.

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Kennel cough, or canine infectious tracheobronchitis, is a highly contagious respiratory disease in dogs caused by bacteria and/or viruses. Most commonly it’s caused by the bacterium Bordetella, with primary or secondary virus infection. 

The disease is spread through direct contact with other dogs. So if you think your dog might have kennel cough, please isolate him from other dogs. 

Kennel cough causes inflammation of the larynx and trachea. The main symptom is a persistent honking cough. 

Kennel cough is not typically life-threatening and most cases resolve themselves within a few weeks. However, if your pet doesn’t recover after a few weeks of treatment, please call your vet.

Take care! ❤️

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