You’ve heard horror stories about dogs coming home from boarding centers or dog parks with a terrible, contagious disease: kennel cough. So why do dogs get kennel cough — and what can dog owners do about it?
Being conscious of kennel cough is an essential part of dog ownership, especially if your dog regularly interacts with other dogs. But don’t worry: we’ve got the lowdown on this disease right here.
Everything You Need to Know About Kennel Cough
What Is Kennel Cough?
This disease is technically known as canine infectious tracheobronchitis. But that’s quite a mouthful, so it’s usually referred to by a simpler name: bordetella, or kennel cough.
As the name implies, kennel cough is a contagious respiratory illness that affects dogs. It readily spreads in places like vet offices, kennels, doggy daycares and dog parks where many dogs gather at once.
Interestingly, kennel cough can be caused by either a virus or a bacterial infection. It’s most commonly caused by the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica m, which is where the name “bordetella” comes from.
The Bordetella bacteria is usually accompanied by a virus that makes the dog more susceptible to infection by the bacteria. This symbiotic relationship often involves viruses like distemper, reovirus, canine herpes, adenovirus and parainfluenza.
Kennel cough is similar to human bronchitis in that it’s extremely unpleasant but usually curable. But for high-risk groups, including elderly dogs and puppies, it can be far more dangerous.
How Does Kennel Cough Spread?
As a respiratory illness, kennel cough spreads via the respiratory tract. Dogs with kennel cough typically spread it through airborne droplets by barking, drooling, or breathing on or around other dogs.
Kennel cough can also spread when dogs touch noses or lick each other’s noses or mouths. Sharing food bowls, water bowls, and toys can also spread the disease.
Where Do Dogs Catch Kennel Cough?
Any place where multiple dogs interact with one another is a potential source of kennel cough infection. The more dogs there are in a given area, the more likely they are to catch kennel cough from an infected dog.
Dog parks, animal shelters, daycare centers and boarding kennels are dangerous places to be if kennel cough is spreading in your area. These places welcome dogs from all over and generally allow them to socialize with each other, putting every dog at risk.
But dogs can even contract kennel cough at vet’s offices and dog groomers if surfaces and tools aren’t properly sanitized in between clients. And if your dog rubs noses with another neighborhood dog on a daily walk, he could catch kennel cough that way as well.
What Are the Symptoms of Kennel Cough?
The most obvious symptom of kennel cough is, as you’d expect, a cough. It’s a very distinctive cough that sounds like a goose’s honk, unlike typical dog coughs which sound closer to sneezes.
Coughing is forceful and doesn’t let up throughout the day — it’s virtually constant, so neither you nor your dog will be able to ignore it.
For some dogs, coughing is the only symptom that presents during a kennel cough infection. But some dogs also exhibit sneezing, runny noses, eye discharge and a low-grade fever.
Rarely, dogs with kennel cough may become lethargic or lose their appetites. But most dogs retain their normal energy levels and enjoyment of food, so these symptoms aren’t reliable markers of kennel cough on their own.
However, when there is a concurrent viral infection alongside the kennel cough, as we discussed in the “What Is Kennel Cough?” section, other symptoms may present.
If the dog has both kennel cough and distemper, for example, the honking cough may be accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea and thick nasal discharge. And if the dog has kennel cough and canine herpes, you may notice bloating or genital sores in addition to the cough.
Because of this confusion, it’s important to see a vet as soon as possible if your dog develops a cough.
Are Some Dogs More Likely to Get Kennel Cough?
Kennel cough can affect any dog, but it’s more likely to cause serious symptoms in elderly dogs, puppies and immunocompromised dogs.
Puppies in particular are more likely to contract kennel cough than other dogs, and the disease tends to be worse the younger the puppy is. That’s because a puppy’s immune system hasn’t had the time to get strong and build resistance to various stressors and diseases.
Dogs with preexisting respiratory conditions, like lung cancer or asthma, are also more likely to experience severe symptoms of kennel cough. Additionally, dogs that are exposed to dust or cigarette smoke may be more susceptible to the disease.
Cold temperatures also seem to exacerbate kennel cough symptoms, so dogs in extreme climates are at a higher risk of complications.
How Is Kennel Cough Treated?
Thankfully, kennel cough is easily treated and, in many cases, resolves itself after a couple of weeks of rest.
Many vets, however, will prescribe antibiotics and/or cough medicine to dogs with kennel cough. Antibiotics can speed up the recovery process if the kennel cough is bacterial in origin, and cough medicine can alleviate the worst symptoms and make the dog more comfortable.
In severe cases, the vet may prescribe your dog a nebulizer or vaporizer containing bronchodilators or antibiotics. These measures are generally reserved for high-risk dogs.
During kennel cough recovery, it’s recommended to use a harness rather than a leash when walking your dog. This will reduce the strain on his windpipe and make it easier for him to breathe.
It’s very important to keep your dog away from other dogs until he’s given a clean bill of health. And if you have multiple dogs, chances are that if one of them has kennel cough, all of them do, so simultaneous treatment is advised even if only one dog shows symptoms.
Can Kennel Cough Be Prevented?
There is a vaccine for the Bordetella bacteria that commonly causes kennel cough. It’s initially given in two doses over the course of two to four weeks, then supplemented by a booster shot every six to twelve months.
The Bordetella vaccine is highly recommended for dogs that attend doggy daycare, frequently visit dog parks, participate in training groups or stay in boarding kennels. But any dog can receive the vaccine, so ask your vet about it if you’d like to protect your dog.