Kennel Cough: The ‘Must Knows’, Symptoms and Cures

We understand that nothing is more important to you than the health of your pets. That’s why dog owners need to be better informed on what kennel cough is. Considering how many dogs get this at some point in their life, it’s downright dangerous how many owners don’t know the symptoms and treatment.

As both keen researchers and dog fanatics, that’s why we put together this guide which answers every question that is getting asked and every question that should be getting asked.

The Basics:

Image of a sick dog for our kennel cough article

What is kennel cough?

It is the common name for canine infectious tracheobronchitis, which is a respiratory infection in dogs that causes a harsh, hacking cough. Kennel cough affects a dog’s respiratory system, including the windpipe and voice box, and is highly contagious.

How do dogs catch kennel cough?

Kennel cough is incredibly contagious. Many dogs catch the infection from being in dog kennels and shelters with infected dogs, which is where the illness gets its name. For this reason, it can spread through a group of dogs like wildfire, which is why early identification is vital.

There are some factors that exacerbate the likelihood of a dog being infected by kennel cough, too. The following factors are known to cause the disease:

  • Poor ventilation
  • Cold temperatures
  • Being exposed to dust or cigarette smoke
  • Having travel-induced stress

Kennel cough itself is airborne and transmitted by aerosols that are released when a sick animal coughs, often inhaled through their respiratory tract. It can also be transmitted by bacteria on dog toys, food or water bowls or other shared objects like bedding. Their respiratory system is normally lined with a coating of mucus that is designed to protect against the infection by trapping infectious particles. However, the factors like those listed above can effect this ability to fight back, making kennel cough more dangerous.

What actually causes the kennel cough in dogs?

Similar to the common cold in humans, kennel cough can be caused by a variety of viruses and bacteria. The most common one is a bacteria strain called Bordetella bronchiseptica, which is why some people call kennel cough Bordetella.

Data relating to disease prevalence for pet dogs in the UK.

Data relating to disease prevalence for pet dogs in the UK (Source: RVC).

 

Dogs are more likely to be infected by Bordetella when their immune system is weakened, usually by an infection from a virus. Viruses such as canine adenovirus, canine distemper virus, canine herpes, parainfluenza virus and canine reovirus are all known to make dogs more susceptible to kennel cough.

Which dogs are more susceptible to kennel cough than others?

Puppies’ immune systems are not at full strength and this can make them more susceptible to becoming infected until at least six months old. Older dogs with a weakened immune system, or dogs with compromised immune systems (like those pregnant or with chronic conditions) may also be more susceptible. This means that extra care is required.

Shorter nosed dog breeds are also at an increased risk of developing respiratory disease. However, they are not necessarily more likely to catch kennel cough in particular than other breeds compared to similar contagions.

Is kennel cough dangerous or life-threatening?

Kennel cough can sound terrible and will understandably make you concerned for your dog. Fortunately, most of the time kennel cough is not a serious condition and will likely not require any treatment at all. However, similar to the common cold in humans, it can be far more serious to those who are more susceptible. This is where kennel cough can evolve from “concern” to “serious danger”.

Those considered more susceptible includes puppies, elderly dogs or those with existing/constant illnesses. In these cases, it could potentially develop into something more serious like pneumonia.

Is kennel cough contagious for humans?

Kennel cough is a type of respiratory infection, not a specific disease, and therefore has a wide range of possible causes. It’s not possible for most canine viruses to be transmitted to humans. However, the main bacteria Bordetella can infect humans – although this is very rare and only presents a risk to people with weakened immune systems. Therefore it isn’t something that you should be too concerned with.

Can kennel cough be prevented?

The best treatment for kennel cough is preventative care. Your dog’s best defence against infection is a strong immune system, which you can boost with nutrition, exercise, and supplements.

Controlling your dog’s exposure to other animals is another way to prevent them from catching kennel cough and other contagious diseases. You can also disinfect the air and surfaces around them. Be sure to pay attention to early signals that your dog’s immune system is weakening, such as eye discharge, a change in smell or a more intense odour, waxy ears or red lines in the gums.

Looking at the Symptoms of Kennel Cough:

A dog suffering from Kennel Cough being nursed better

What are the symptoms of kennel cough?

The most obvious symptom of the infection is a constant, forceful dry cough. As a result of this, they could produce discharge around the eye and mucus from the nose.

If your dog has kennel cough, he shouldn’t feel ill apart from the coughing – even though that can get very painful. They shouldn’t suffer from decreased energy levels or a loss of appetite either.

Symptoms usually develop three to ten days after exposure. The cough can be triggered by the dog getting excited or doing vigorous exercise, but even resting dogs may cough every few minutes throughout the day.

How is kennel cough diagnosed?

There is no single test to diagnose it and usually if your dog has the symptoms of kennel cough, your vet will conduct a diagnosis of exclusion. They will examine your dog to exclude other causes of kennel cough, such as heart disease, fungal and parasitic infections, a collapsing trachea, or cancer.

It is possible to try and determine the exact virus or bacteria causing kennel cough with swabs, but this rarely helps with treatment.

What does kennel cough sound like?

Kennel cough can sometimes sound like your dog has something stuck in their throat. This could be described as dry, hacking, gagging or like a deep honking. This sound can often be mistaken for a choking fit, sneezing, retching or gasping for breath.

It is distinct from a cough-like sound known as reverse sneezing, which is common in certain breeds and is triggered by irritation in the throat. Reverse sneezes can be normal in certain dogs, and usually only indicates the presence of post-nasal drip or a slight irritation of the throat.

What should you do if your dog is showing symptoms of kennel cough?

Depending on the symptoms your dog is showing, you may not need to visit the vet. If they are still perky, eating well and playful then this is definitely true. However, it is always smart to phone the vet for advice if you are worried.

If your dog is showing other symptoms and seems unwell then see your vet as soon as possible. It’s best to phone ahead and advise the vet that your dog has been coughing as kennel cough is highly contagious and it would be best if you and your dog waited somewhere other than a crowded waiting room where it might infect other dogs.

So, Your Dog has Kennel Cough…

Dog ill on medical bed

What is the treatment for kennel cough?

In most cases, dogs will recover from kennel cough without any treatment because it is self-limiting and will run its course, much like a human cold. Medication may speed recovery or help minimise the symptoms of kennel cough, but there are also a number of home remedies you can use – more on that later. What we would immediately recommend doing is separating the infected dog from any other dogs you may have. Apart from that, ensure your dog is eating and drinking well, along with getting plenty of rest and ultimately just taking it a little easy. Working up a sweat by running around and playing can exacerbate the cough and make it even worse.

  • Humidify, humidify, humidify

You may find that keeping your dog in a well-humidified area can help reduce your dog’s coughing. Placing a humidifier by your dog’s bed can help moisten its respiratory passages and steam therapy is also an option. An alternative is placing your dog in a small bathroom and leaving the shower running to fill the room with steam. Don’t let your dog get in the shower, though!

  • Leave that collar behind

When you do walk your dog, we recommend using a harness instead of a collar – especially if your dog often strains against the lead. This will avoid the collar irritating the neck and potentially causing a coughing fit.

  • Stub it out

Avoiding airborne irritants like cigarette smoke and allergens will also help minimise any irritation to your dog’s throat and help prevent coughing. Cigarette smoke can also make your dog more susceptible to infection and should be avoided if possible.

  • Turn to prescriptions

Prescription cough suppressants are normally reserved for cases in which a fever develops or the cough becomes more severe. It is possible to use non-prescription cough remedies such as Robitussin (dextromethorphan) to help the dog feel more comfortable. Dog cough remedies like that are recommended for chronic, dry, unproductive coughing, and should not be used for moist or productive coughs.

Some veterinarians may recommend dog cough medicine, but others contend that cough suppressants further weaken the immune system and should only be given to dogs under severe circumstances. Products that contain acetaminophen or caffeine should also never be given to dogs.

Are there any home remedies for kennel cough?

There are several home cough remedies that can help soothe the symptoms of the issue and aid recovery.

Honey is often used to soothe sore throats in humans, but can also be used to help reduce the symptoms of kennel cough in dogs. You can administer a tablespoon of honey directly to your dog, or you can mix the honey with warm water in a bowl. Honey can be administered up to three times a day, depending on the degree of coughing.

Honey, in the right amounts, can be very effective for helping with kennel cough.

Honey, in the right amounts, can be very effective for helping with kennel cough.

If your dog isn’t interested in drinking water, or if the weather is cold, try offering your dog lukewarm water. You can even add a small amount of chicken broth to encourage the dog to drink again.

Coconut oil is also a great home remedy because its medium-chain fatty acids kill harmful bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungi, and parasites. Give your dog two teaspoons daily until the cough is cured. Like honey, it can be delivered directly or drizzled over your dog’s food.

What is the incubation period for kennel cough?

The incubation period for kennel cough is between two and 14 days. Your dog will be contagious during this time. It is possible for some dogs to be carriers for months without exhibiting symptoms themselves.

How long does kennel cough last?

It will usually clear up completely within three weeks, although it can take longer in older dogs or those with other medical conditions. Usually, symptoms will begin to diminish after the first five days or so.

It is possible that in very extreme cases kennel cough can develop into pneumonia, though. For this reason, be sure to contact your vet if your dog’s condition hasn’t improved after four to six weeks.

Can my dog get kennel cough more than once?

Yes, it is possible for your dog to get kennel cough more than once. Similar to the common cold in humans, there are many different strains of kennel cough, which is why your dog can catch the infection multiple times.

However, if your dog has contracted the Bordetella bronchiseptica strain, then it should normally be immune to re-infection for between six to twelve months.

What about antibiotics?

In more serious cases of kennel cough, or for puppies and older dogs that have a weaker immune system, a vet will prescribe oral antibiotics that target the Bordetella bacteria. However, as this isn’t the sole perpetrator of kennel cough, this means that antibiotics aren’t a perfect cure.

Dog antibiotics are instead more useful for treating secondary infections like pneumonia, that can evolve from kennel cough in extreme cases.

A Look at the Kennel Cough Vaccine

Is there a kennel cough vaccine?

Protection against some of the viruses that can cause kennel cough is included in your dog’s puppy vaccination schedule and booster vaccinations. These viruses include canine distemper, canine parainfluenza virus, canine influenza, and canine adenovirus type two.

Your vet can also provide a vaccination against the main bacterial cause, Bordetella. These vaccinations can come in three forms: an injection, intranasal spray or a newer oral form. Vaccination is not useful in dogs already incubating kennel cough, however. The nasal vaccine for Bordetella bronchiseptica can be given when your dog is as young as three weeks, with it providing protection for about 12 months. It takes four days for it to become effective, and is considered the fastest method of vaccinating your dog.

Which dogs should get the kennel cough vaccine?

Most dog boarding kennels require proof of Bordetella vaccination for any dogs that will be staying with them. This means that if your dog is going to be staying in boarding kennels, then a vaccine will be needed. Any dog that routinely comes into close or direct contact with other dogs should also be vaccinated. If you are a frequent visitor to a dog park or your dog competes in dog shows or sports then vaccination would be wise. This is also true for service dogs.

If your dog has an underlying medical condition that makes it unsafe to vaccinate or already has a respiratory infection, then vaccination should be avoided. Any dog that has previously had a severe reaction to the vaccine should also not be vaccinated, and those who had a minor reaction should be vaccinated with caution. Similarly, dogs currently on antibiotics should be allowed to finish the full course of treatment before vaccination. We do recommend speaking with your veterinarian to learn more about your options with vaccinations.

How often do dogs need kennel cough vaccinations?

The frequency of your dog’s vaccination, if it needs to be vaccinated at all, can depend on the type of vaccine. Your vet should be able to inform you on how long your vaccine will last, but most vaccines protect dogs for six months while others are good for a full year.

Veterinary immunologist Ronald Schultz on kennel cough

Image source: Vetmed

If your dog is not currently vaccinated then it is recommended to vaccinate it at least five to ten days prior to going into a kennel or other situations that would put the dog into close contact with other dogs.

How likely is the vaccine to prevent kennel cough?

Similar to flu vaccines or shots in humans, the Bordetella vaccine doesn’t guarantee protection from kennel cough for your dog. This is because there are so many different causes and strains. Instead, the kennel cough vaccine reduces the likelihood and severity of the illness and makes it more likely that your dog will recover on its own.

There is a risk that dogs can develop a milk version of kennel cough shortly after being vaccinated, although this is less likely in dogs that have built up an immunity from previous vaccination or exposure to kennel cough.

Is the kennel cough vaccination worthwhile?

Whilst the kennel cough vaccination doesn’t offer 100% guaranteed immunity, it does reduce the symptoms and the likelihood of them catching it.

The intranasal vaccine is highly effective and has the lowest risks and side effects as it is not systemic, and goes down the nose into the throat. The vaccination is cleverly designed and as it travels up the nose it follows what would be the direct path of infection. It then coats the mucous lining of the nasal area and respiratory tract so that specific resistance is in place.

No matter what your dog’s vaccination status, a few natural kennel cough preventives can’t hurt, especially whenever your dog is exposed to dogs with active or recent infections.

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If you have any further questions or concerns about kennel cough, then don’t hesitate to talk to your veterinarian as they are your best resource to ensure your pets stay healthy and happy.