What is Kennel Cough?

By: Kristi Sharpe, DVM

Kennel cough is a term to describe the respiratory disease complex of infectious tracheobronchitis. It is a respiratory disease “complex” because it can be caused by several different pathogens (viruses and bacteria). It is characterized by a honking “goose-like” cough. Many owners describe it as sounding like something is stuck in the dog’s throat. The coughing can be so forceful that it triggers a gag reflex and causes the dog to vomit. It is highly contagious and can spread rapidly at dog parks, boarding and grooming facilities.

Dogs can become infected if they are in direct or indirect contact with another dog shedding the infectious organism. Boarding facilities are commonly implicated in the spread of kennel cough. (I mean it’s called “kennel cough” for a reason.) However, why they’re implicated is a little complicated. Obviously, you have to have a dog that is actively shedding the organisms. This could be a dog that is actively sick and coughing, a dog that’s recently recovered but the organism is still present or a carrier. Actively sick dogs are less of an issue because we can typically identify and isolate them to prevent spread. Recently recovered dogs and carriers are almost impossible to detect without extensive testing. If we have a seemingly healthy dog that is shedding infection it can spread very easily within any crowded environment, especially if there is stress involved like when a dog is boarded. Every dog that boards experiences some level of stress, even dogs that routinely board and seem unaffected by their stay. Stress can cause hormonal changes within the body that affect multiple systems within the body. When we’re discussing kennel cough, though, we must focus on the changes that occur within the airway. When a dog is stressed the normal protective mechanisms within the respiratory tract that protect the body from invaders start to falter, making it easy for bacteria and viruses to take hold.

The most commonly blamed culprit for infectious tracheobronchitis is a bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica. However, the bacterium rarely acts alone. Other viruses, such as parainfluenza, and bacteria can be involved. The kennel cough vaccine typically only protects against Bordetella bronchiseptica. Some will also cover parainfluenza. But there is no vaccine that covers every possible cause of kennel cough. So, the kennel cough vaccine does not guarantee that your dog will not develop symptoms of kennel cough.

The good news is kennel cough is rarely fatal and will usually resolve without intervention within 1-2 weeks. However, after resolution of symptoms the dog may still be able to spread the infection for up to a month. Occasionally in very young or very old dogs, pneumonia may develop as consequence of infection, but can be treated. If you suspect your dog has kennel cough your veterinarian will likely prescribe medications based on symptoms alone, especially if your pet is otherwise acting normally. This will shorten the severity and alleviate the symptoms of infection.

If you have any questions or concerns about symptoms your dog is having or if you just have concerns about sending your dog to a kennel facility, feel free to call or e-mail the office. We will be more than happy to address your concerns.

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