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Kennel Cough: What Is It? And How To Help Prevent It

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If you’ve ever boarded your dog before — or just known a friend who has — you may have heard of the dreaded “kennel cough.” More formally known as “infectious tracheobronchitis,” kennel cough is a highly contagious illness where one of the main symptoms is, of course, coughing. So how do you keep your dog safe when they head to the kennel?

What is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough, even when referred to as the more clinical and technical canine infectious tracheobronchitis, is still a little vague. That’s because tracheobronchitis only refers to the bronchial tubes and windpipe that are impacted, not the actual illness. 

According to Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas, kennel cough is “a highly contagious bacteria that is also known as infectious tracheobronchitis. This means and infection in the trachea that has now caused inflammation.” How insightful! As a veterinary consultant for doglab.com, Sara Ochoa, DVM, knows what she’s talking about, and we’re pleased to share her insight into kennel cough will all of you. 

Going off of what Sara mentioned, there are numerous viruses and bacteria that can cause this illness. Illnesses that could be to blame include adenovirus type-2, parainfluenza virus, canine respiratory coronavirus, canine distemper virus, canine influenza virus and Bordetella bronchiseptica. 

The term Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex, or CIRDC, more commonly refers to cough that could be caused by any of these illnesses, especially when the cough is first noticed right after a dog was exposed to other dogs in a kennel or other group situation.

While kennel cough is common in kennels, the likelihood of your dog catching kennel cough can increase the greater the number of dogs in one place, as well as with environmental factors such as dirt or dust, cold weather, cigarette smoke, poor ventilation or stress. Unfortunately, all of these factors are prevalent at many kennels and boarders. 

They’re less common at places like doggy daycares, however, which means that your dog may be safe from kennel cough at their daily playdate, despite the larger canine crowds. This isn’t to say the risk is entirely mitigated, but it is lessened, just as it is at dog shows, dog parks or dog grooming facilities.

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Kennel Cough Symptoms

Dog looking miserably at the camera while he's under a blanket. He isn't feeling well, probably with kennel cough

Cough isn’t the only symptom of kennel cough. While a long-lasting cough is the primary symptom, other symptoms can include runny eyes, nasal discharge, wheezing, fever, lack of energy, lack of appetite and swelling. The cough is usually worse when the dog exercises. 

However, this isn’t a full list of symptoms and it isn’t necessarily the case that your dog doesn’t have kennel cough if they don’t have all of these symptoms. Your dog may just have the cough and not the wheezing or lack of appetite, and still have what is technically kennel cough.

Typically, these symptoms show up within two to 14 days of infection, and then stick around either until treated or up to a few weeks, if untreated and a mild case that goes away on its own. However, even after your dog is symptom-free, they can still be contagious for up to three months after infection, meaning you won’t want to board them during that time period.

Recognizing Your Dog’s Cough

Dogs make a lot of weird noses on a day-to-day basis. Growls, huffs, sniffs, sneezes, wheezes, sighs — how do you know if a certain noise is truly a cough caused by kennel cough? 

Typically, a canine cough will be either dry or productive, followed by a gag, retching or swallow, and sometimes producing mucus. Be careful not to confuse a cough with your dog clearing their throat, which is actually quite common for small dogs. Many pet parents describe a kennel cough as similar to a honking noise.

Diagnosing Kennel Cough

If your dog’s symptoms are on the severe side, your vet may want to do some lab work to determine what exactly caused the kennel cough, so as to prescribe the best treatment plan. This lab work may include blood work, taking a bacteria culture, taking a fecal sample or doing a urinalysis. In some cases, an X-ray may be needed. Very rarely, an overnight stay may be required.

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Treating Kennel Cough

Golden Retreiver getting a check up from the vet for his kennel cough

How you treat your dog’s kennel cough will depend on what particular illness caused the kennel cough. If it’s a mild case, it may even clear up on its own, within a few weeks, though it can take up to six weeks if your dog already has an underlying condition. If the kennel cough is related to bacteria like bordetella, however, your vet may need to prescribe some antibiotics.

Canine Adenovirus Type-2

Sometimes called CAV-2 or infectious canine laryngotracheitis virus, canine adenovirus type-2 presents itself as coughing and is spread easily from one dog to another via that coughing. It’s typically treated via symptom relief only, unless secondary infections arise, which may be treated with antibiotics. You can provide your pup some relief with extra fluids and rest.

Canine Respiratory Coronavirus

Canine respiratory coronavirus is not to be confused with COVID-19 and isn’t the same as group 1 canine coronavirus, which causes intestinal issues. Instead, canine respiratory coronavirus causes kennel cough symptoms. 

It is transmitted via moisture droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing, as well as those droplets landing on hard surfaces. Treatment is supportive only, though antibiotics can be prescribed for secondary issues. There’s no vaccine for canine respiratory coronavirus.

Bordetella

Bordetella is the most common underlying cause of kennel cough, which is why most kennels require proof of a bordetella vaccine before booking a stay. The bacteria inflames your dog’s upper respiratory tract. Bordetella is treated with antibiotics.

Parainfluenza Virus

Canine parainfluenza virus is likewise quite common. It also does require its own vaccination in order for your pup to be protected. Your vet may prescribe a cough suppressant to relieve your dog’s symptoms, if the parainfluenza virus is the cause of your dog’s kennel cough.

Canine Influenza Virus

Canine influenza is similar to parainfluenza, but comes with its own, separate vaccination, as the two viruses are different. Treatment is limited, but can include supportive care, such as additional fluids, or anti-inflammatory medicines to help with fevers or aches.

Canine Distemper Virus

Canine distemper virus can be spread a multitude of ways. Beyond being spread through coughing and air transmission, the virus is also present in shared water and food bowls. It can also be passed on to puppies if the mother contracts the virus while pregnant. 

Treatment is supportive and typically includes providing lots of fluids and easy-to-digest foods, as symptoms go beyond coughing to include vomiting, diarrhea and neurological symptoms. VCA Animal Hospitals can provide a range of information on these various pet illnesses.

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Relieving Kennel Cough Symptoms

While your vet is treating the underlying causes of kennel cough, you can make your dog a little more comfortable by treating some of their symptoms. Cough suppressants and anti-inflammatory medications may provide welcome relief.

You can also relieve pressure on your dog’s throat by swapping out their normal collar for a harness. The pulling of a normal collar on the neck while walking can cause additional coughing or throat pain.

A humidifier will help your dog feel a little bit better, especially if you live in a dry climate, as it will keep those air passages moist. Whether or not you think a humidifier is necessary, this is a great time to ensure your dog’s space is both clean and well-ventilated, to prevent further air passage irritation.

Preventing Kennel Cough

Husky smiling as he rests after a hike in the mountains

But you don’t want your pup to suffer. Luckily, there are ways you can prevent kennel cough so that this common illness isn’t even a problem in the first place.

When you take your dog to get vaccinated for the first time or annually, your vet will likely recommend common vaccines that protect your pup from kennel cough. These include vaccines that protect against bordetella, adenovirus and parainfluenza. On top of this, many boarding options or kennels will actually require your dog to show proof of these vaccines, to keep everyone healthy.

These vaccines can be administered via injection, an oral solution or a nasal solution. The oral solution is considered the fastest-acting, so is more advisable if you plan on boarding your dog in the near future and need protection quickly.

Do note, though, that these vaccines are not a 100% guarantee of your dog’s immunity to kennel cough, so you want to pick your kennel with care. Look for past business reviews that mention kennel cough. Ask to see the boarding area and check for environmental factors such as dirt, dust, overcrowding and cold temperatures.

Additionally, attempt to relieve your dog’s stress as much as possible when it comes to boarding; just like humans are more apt to get sick while experiencing high stress, your dog may be more likely to catch kennel cough if they’re stressed the entire time they’re at the boarding facility.

For this reason, as well as just to ensure your dog’s comfort in all situations, if you know boarding causes your dog extreme stress, you may want to look at alternative options. You also want to be very sure to keep up to date on your dog’s vaccines. Keep thorough records of what vaccines they’ve received and when, so you’re always 100% sure that they’re safe.

Beyond bolstering your dog’s immunity, you can also be sure not to expose them to potential risks unnecessarily. If you have a puppy, reconsider boarding them until they’ve had all of their recommended vaccinations. If you have an immunocompromised dog, consider boarding alternatives, such as an at-home pet sitter.

If you are sure that your dog had kennel cough in the past that was caused by the bordetella bacteria, then they are typically naturally immune to the bacteria for about six months afterward. However, to prevent reinfection, be sure to thoroughly sanitize all surfaces that impact your dog, in your home, both during and after their illness. If you have other dogs or cats in your home, keep them away from the infected dog as much as possible, for as long as possible, to prevent further spread.

Kennel Cough Complications

Unfortunately, while most cases of kennel cough are easily treatable or even go away on their own, sometimes, complications can occur. Just like a human can get a bad cold that turns into complications like pneumonia, kennel cough can turn into pneumonia as well, or even a collapsing trachea. 

If your dog doesn’t improve after one week of treatment, you should call your vet for further action. These complications are most likely to occur in dogs that are already immunocompromised, dogs that are unvaccinated or young dogs.

Am I in Danger?

It’s not entirely impossible for dogs to pass on their illnesses to their humans. While a human contracting kennel cough is very, very rare, those in immunocompromised positions may want to take special care to avoid infection from a dog with bordetella. This bacteria can impact those with HIV, cancer or other chronic illnesses.

Do I Need Pet Insurance for Kennel Cough?

While pet insurance is a good idea in general, if it’s not quite in the budget at the moment, you’ll be happy to know that treating kennel cough at your vet’s office if a vet visit is required. It’s typically one of the more affordable pet health care costs, at least compared to treatment for emergencies or more life-threatening issues. Most vets can diagnose kennel cough without doing a lot of lengthy lab work.

However, a good pet insurance plan can further help you cover preventative care that can prevent your dog from getting kennel cough in the first place, such as ensuring they’re up to date on all of their vaccines.

Treating Kennel Cough Starts With Prevention

Just as is the case with most illnesses, both human and canine, treating kennel cough starts with prevention. Make sure your dog is up to date on all of their vaccinations and then only board them at safe, reputable kennels.

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Holly Riddle

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