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Kennel Cough in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Kennel cough is a common, contagious disease that produces coughing and other upper respiratory symptoms in dogs. The disease can cause significant discomfort — and in some cases, serious complications — but it usually responds very well to veterinary treatment.

Here are some important things to know about kennel cough, including how to treat and prevent the disease.

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What Is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough, also known as infectious tracheobronchitis, is an infection of the throat and upper airways in dogs. 

Several types of viruses and bacteria (and often more than one pathogen, in combination) can cause kennel cough. Common culprits include the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica and viruses such as canine influenza virus, canine parainfluenza virus, canine adenovirus type-2, and others.

Of these, Bordetella bronchiseptica is the most common. For that reason, the terms “kennel cough” and “Bordetella” are often used interchangeably to describe both the disease and the vaccine that helps prevent it. 

Is Kennel Cough in Dogs Serious?

Fortunately, kennel cough is not considered a fatal disease — the vast majority of dogs recover just fine. However, the cough can be uncomfortable and lead to a sore throat, which may interfere with your dog’s eating or sleeping.

Sometimes kennel cough can progress to pneumonia, a serious complication that may be fatal. Young puppies, older seniors, and pups with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk for developing severe disease.

Veterinary care is recommended to rule out other causes of cough, and to provide relief and a faster recovery. 

Common Symptoms of Kennel Cough

Symptoms to look for include…

  • Kennel cough in dogs sounds like a loud “honking’” or “hacking” cough. Coughing is, by far, the most common symptom. It might sound like a dog has something “stuck” in their throat and is trying to cough it up. As the cough progresses, a dog might hack up liquid or foam (which looks very similar to vomiting). 
  • Tracheal sensitivity, which means that running your hands along the dog’s windpipe may stimulate a coughing episode
  • Wheezing
  • Gagging or retching
  • Sneezing or a runny nose
  • Eye tearing or discharge
  • Most dogs act like their normal selves, other than having a cough. Dogs with more serious disease may display general signs of not feeling well, like lethargy, decreased appetite, or a fever.

Dogs who are very ill or have difficulty breathing need immediate veterinary care, as this could indicate serious disease.

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How Is Kennel Cough Transmitted?

The viruses and bacteria (including Bordetella bronchiseptica) that cause infectious tracheobronchitis are highly contagious between dogs.

Kennel cough is primarily spread through respiratory droplets (from coughing, sneezing, etc.). But, it can also spread through direct contact or by sharing objects such as toys, bedding, water and food bowls, etc. The incubation period is 2-14 days, which unfortunately means a dog may be contagious before they show symptoms.

Dogs who go to boarding, grooming, doggie day care, dog parks, travel, training classes, pet events, or anything that brings a pup in close proximity to other dogs (which could happen even during a walk) have a higher risk, due to the increased likelihood of exposure to kennel cough.

Also, certain conditions — such as stress, overcrowding, poor ventilation, cold temperatures, and inhaled irritants like cigarette smoke — can weaken the natural immune defenses in a dog’s respiratory tract, and thus make a dog more susceptible to infection.

While much less common than in dogs, cats can occasionally catch kennel cough. Human infection is extremely rare and usually not a concern outside of individuals with a severely compromised immune system.

How Is Kennel Cough Diagnosed?

Infectious tracheobronchitis is one of many different causes of coughing in dogs. Other common causes include heart conditions, genetic conditions that cause narrowing of the windpipe, allergens/irritants, pneumonia, parasites, and other lung diseases. The cause of the cough will determine what is the most appropriate treatment.

Your veterinarian will start by asking questions about your dog’s recent history (for example, if your dog has been in close proximity to other dogs recently) and doing a full physical exam. 

In otherwise healthy pets, symptoms of kennel cough, along with recent exposure to other dogs, may be enough to make a diagnosis and begin treatment. 

In some cases, diagnostic testing such as radiographs or infectious disease testing might be needed — especially with severe symptoms or in dogs who don’t respond well to treatment.

Fortunately, most dogs get some relief soon after treatment is initiated, with full resolution in 1-2 weeks. However, mild symptoms may linger for several weeks.

Kennel Cough in Dogs: Treatment and Prevention

Common treatments include…

  • Antibiotics. This treats common Bordetella bacteria directly. In case of a viral infection, antibiotics help prevent secondary (opportunistic) bacterial infections, which are extremely common and can make the disease worse or lead to pneumonia.
  • Pet-safe cough suppressants, anti-inflammatories, or pain medications. This helps break the coughing cycle and provides relief to a sore throat.

It’s possible for a dog with mild symptoms to improve on their own. However, the disease may get worse without treatment. Prompt care can provide your furry friend with some much needed relief from their cough or sore throat.

Dogs with pneumonia or serious complications may require hospitalization.

Home Remedies for Kennel Cough

Never give medications at home without checking with your vet first—some can be toxic to pets! Fortunately, there are a few other things you can do to help your pup feel better, including…

  • Using a humidifier (no medications or oils, just humidity)
  • Allowing your pup to rest until their cough improves
  • Keeping plenty of drinking water available to prevent dehydration
  • Switching from a collar to a harness, which doesn’t push on the throat
  • Offering soft or canned food if your pet’s appetite seems down — it’s easier to swallow
  • Avoiding smoke, dust, and other irritants in the home

Limiting the Spread of Kennel Cough to Other Dogs

If you have more than one dog in the home, try to keep the dog with kennel cough in a separate room. Avoid taking them outside for walks more than necessary, and wash your hands after interacting with your pup or changing out their supplies. 

Take these precautions until your vet gives the okay for your dog to socialize. If you can’t get an appointment right away, consider isolating your dog in the meantime to be on the safe side.

Preventing Kennel Cough in Dogs

Vaccination is one of the best ways to prevent kennel cough, especially for dogs who socialize or go to facilities (boarding, grooming, day care, dog parks, etc.) or events where a lot of other dogs are around.

Vaccinations are available for some infectious tracheobronchitis agents—including Bordetella bronchiseptica and some viral diseases. Your veterinarian can recommend what’s best for your individual pup based on their lifestyle and the risks in your local area. It’s important to keep your pet up to date on boosters (the Bordetella vaccine is usually boostered every 6-12 months) to gain the maximum benefit. 

It’s still possible for a vaccinated dog to develop kennel cough, since not all pathogens can be covered through vaccinations and since immunity isn’t lifelong. However, vaccines are still recommended because they can greatly reduce the risk, and they may result in milder disease (and a faster recovery) if a pup does contract kennel cough.

You can also reduce your dog’s risk by choosing facilities (boarding, grooming, etc.) wisely. Kennel cough can occur even in excellent facilities — just like a human day care, infectious diseases can spread despite all the precautions that are taken. However, looking for facilities with certain standards will make a kennel cough infection less likely. This includes a facility requiring ALL dogs to be up to date on kennel cough vaccination, having measures to isolate dogs who develop a cough while in their care, and having a good air filtration system.

Though kennel cough is common, planning ahead and knowing what to do if your dog is coughing can help to minimize the severity of the condition, prevent it from spreading to other dogs, and help your dog get back to all their favorite activities as soon as possible. 

Is your dog coughing? Call us or schedule an appointment with a veterinarian today.

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