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Kennel Cough

What is it? How do dogs get it? What can you do about it?

This week, the dreaded flu-like doggie illness known as kennel cough reared its ugly head when two of my students’ dogs were diagnosed with it. Because kennel cough seems to appear in waves from time to time, I always press my students to share with me the full details about what their dog’s veterinarian told them so that I can share the information with any dogs this one may have come into contact with while it was contagious.

In particular, I’m eager to know how long their dog needs to stay away from others in order to avoid spreading the illness to rest of my canine students and what symptoms I should tell people to watch for. Sometimes, I get seemingly quite different information from different students who have been to different veterinarians. This time around, I decided to consult Catherine Cole, DVM of the Arlington Animal Clinic at 191 Broadway in Arlington, MA to help clear up my confusion.

I first asked Dr. Cole what kennel cough was, exactly. “Kennel Cough is an infectious bronchitis that causes inflammation of the trachea and larger airways, resulting in a harsh, hacking cough (sounds like something stuck in the throat),” Dr. Cole explained. I wondered whether it was a bacterial infection or a virus, since I’d heard conflicting things. Dr. Cole clarified that what is commonly called “kennel cough” can actually be a combination of both. “While kennel cough is typically thought of as being caused by the bacteria, Bordetella bronchiseptica, it is often accompanied by at least one viral agent (parainfluenza virus, canine adenovirus type two, canine distemper virus, canine herpes virus, canine reovirus) and so it’s often referred to as the ‘Kennel Cough Complex.’”

I asked Dr. Cole what symptoms dog owners should be on the lookout for. She listed one main symptom, as well as a number of others you may see in some cases. The characteristic harsh, dry hacking cough is the symptom most of us associate with the illness. Dr. Cole elaborated to help us better identify this type of cough, saying that, “Dogs often sound as though something is ‘stuck in their throat’ or ‘they're trying to work up a hairball’ (not to be confused with reverse sneezing). The cough can also be productive in that some dogs will swallow or gag afterward, producing a foamy mucus (not to be confused with true vomiting).” Dr. Cole also mentioned that some dogs will appear to cough more during exercise because exertion can exacerbate coughing, as can pressure of the collar on the trachea.

Other symptoms to keep an eye out for include:

  • Red or runny eyes;
  • Sneezing;
  • Runny nose;
  • Lethargy;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Depression;

Dr. Cole also noted that when a severe case of kennel cough leads to pneumonia, labored breathing can also be a symptom.

I asked Dr. Cole how she would treat kennel cough, and she explained that her approach may vary on a case by case basis (perhaps another reason for my confusion about the illness when hearing about it over the years from various students’ whose dogs were being treated for it.) She said that in most mild cases, a dog would recover on its own within seven to ten days, but that she might prescribe a cough suppressant and/or an antibiotic in other, more severe cases. She said that in a case where kennel cough lead to pneumonia, the dog would definitely need antibiotics, and in some cases, a dog may even need to be hospitalized.

Of course, none of us wants to expose our dogs to kennel cough, but what can we do? The more opportunities we give our dogs to socialize with their own species, the greater their risk for coming down with kennel cough. “Kennel cough is spread through the air so the only way to truly avoid Kennel Cough is to completely restrict access to other dogs," Dr. Cole explained.

“However, that's not very practical as dogs are very social creatures and enjoy interacting with other members of their ‘packs,’” she continued, “not to mention the fact that some dogs require regular grooming and all dogs should be seen by a veterinarian at least once yearly.”

Dr. Cole also explained that some of the routine vaccinations we give our dogs can also buffer them from contracting kennel cough. “Canine distemper virus, parainfluenza virus, and adenovirus type two are included in the DHPP or DA2PP vaccine, so some protection is already provided by following the recommended core vaccine guidelines. The American Animal Hospital Association recommends that dogs be vaccinated for DHPP or DA2PP as puppies, at one year of age, then again at two years old and every three years thereafter.”

In addition, Dr. Cole noted that there is a vaccine for Bordetella bronchiseptica, which can provide some immunity against the bacterial part of the Kennel Cough Complex. Over the years, I had heard conflicting things about this vaccine. Some students’ veterinarians had recommended it for their dog, and others had recommended not getting it. Dr. Cole shed some light on the debate: “This is a hot topic right now in veterinary medicine. There are some who feel that dogs who frequent dog parks and socialize with other, non-family dogs, may be receiving some degree of naturally immunity through constant exposure. That, in turn, it's the dog who rarely ventures out and then is suddenly thrust into a social situation who is most at risk as there is no ‘natural immunity.’”

Dr. Cole elaborated on her own views, saying, “The simple answer is that Kennel Cough is a respiratory disease and, as such, all dogs should be vaccinated against it. The practical answer is, those dogs in highly social settings are most at risk. These dogs should be vaccinated every 6-12 months.”

In particular, what should I recommend to my clients attending group classes, I wondered? Dr. Cole felt that, “Dogs who are entering social settings for the first time, be that puppy kindergarten, daycare, a kennel, dog park, etc., should be vaccinated as early as possible, prior to entering that setting. If time is a factor, the intranasal vaccine should be used, however, long-term immunity has been questioned via the intranasal route and many veterinarians recommend boostering the intranasal vaccine with an injectable vaccine in 3-4 weeks if the dog is receiving the vaccine for the first time.”

Dr. Cole also noted that, “In general, injectable, or parenteral, vaccines are thought to achieve better immunity and, as such, the injectable Bordetella vaccination should be used as an annual booster.” She added, “It is also important to keep in mind that the vaccine is effective at lessening the clinical signs of Kennel Cough, rather than preventing infection.”

I was also confused about the incubation period of kennel cough, having heard different things. Dr. Cole told me that, “The incubation period of kennel cough is 2 to 14 days, but added that, “Dogs can shed Bordetella organisms for up to 3 months after infection.”

So, what should dog owners do if they find out that a dog their dog has recently played with has been diagnosed with kennel cough, I wanted to know. “The Kennel Cough Vaccination is not effective in a dog already harboring the organism so, realistically, there isn't much to do but watch and wait to see if clinical signs develop,” Dr. Cole answered. Still she cautioned, “It's also important to keep in mind that while most mild cases do not require treatment, it's important to have a symptomatic dog evaluated by a veterinarian to ensure an accurate diagnosis.”

I asked Dr. Cole how alarmed the dog owning public should be about the chances of their dog catching kennel cough. Dr. Cole said that while it is fairly contagious, it is rarely a very serious disease and that most dogs recover with little to no treatment and no long-term consequences. “This is mostly due to good vaccination practices against Canine distemper virus, as there is very high potential for serious complications with concurrent infection of canine distemper virus specifically,” she explained, adding that, “Very young puppies, particularly those with a recent shipping history, are more prone to severe cases of Kennel Cough that often progress to pneumonia.”

As for me, I consider the risk of my dogs coming down with kennel cough a bit like I think of human children getting a cold or the flu. We don’t keep our kids out of school all season to prevent them from getting sick, but we do try to teach them about good hygiene, keep their nutrition up and in some cases, opt for the flu vaccine, as well. For my dogs, I feel that the benefits of living a fulfilling social life far outweigh the risk of them coming down with a condition that won’t likely be very serious. I keep up with their vaccinations, keep them away from dogs showing signs of illness, and hope for the best.

Luckily, despite routinely having lots of canine contact, none of my dogs has ever gotten kennel cough. Of course, if they ever do come down with it, I’ll have them seen by their veterinarian just to be on the safe side and then keep them away from other dogs for a couple weeks to prevent them from passing it on, but other than that, my own dogs will continue to be social butterflies.


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