November 20, 2019

When your dog has signs of an upper respiratory illness like coughing and sneezing, then your veterinarian might tell you that she suspects kennel cough. In some cases, dogs with “kennel” cough haven’t had any recent exposures to a kennel or boarding facility, so why do we still use that terminology? And whatiskennel cough exactly?

What is kennel cough?

Kennel cough is the name that is applied to a serious of bacterial and viral infections that can cause signs of an upper respiratory illness. It can affect dogs any time of the year but spreads quickest during the summer months. These infections are highly contagious and can spread quickly through places where there are many dogs, including doggie daycares, kennels, grooming salons, and dog parks. Since there are areas of contact other than kennels, most veterinarians are leaning away from using the term “kennel cough” and referring to this condition as canine infectious respiratory disease complex, or CIRDC. Other names like infectious tracheobronchitis are also still used.

Bacteria likeBordetella bronchiseptica and viruses like canine influenza are known for causing kennel cough. These infections cause severe inflammation of the windpipe – aka the trachea – and inflammation of the smaller tube-shaped airways in the lungs known as bronchi-oles. When these airways become inflamed, it can be harder for your dog to breathe. Kennel cough can affect dogs of any age, but young unvaccinated puppies and older or immunocompromised dogs are at a higher risk of infection. Symptoms of the infection can take a few days to resolve, but it can take much longer if it progresses to the lower airways, resulting in pneumonia. Dogs with pneumonia usually have more severe clinical signs.  

Symptoms of kennel cough

a brown and white dog laying in a white bed looking sick

A loud, hacking cough is the most common symptom. Other symptoms include sneezing and a runny nose. Some dogs with kennel cough may still appear energetic, but they may seem to cough more in the moments when they are very excited or running and playing. Dogs with severe kennel cough that progresses to pneumonia may experience fever, lethargy, and inappetence.

Other diseases can mimic kennel cough. Allergies can cause coughing just like in humans, and dogs can also develop asthma or chronic bronchitis. If your dog is a small breed dog, then he may be more at risk for a condition known as collapsing trachea, which is where the trachea is narrow and can collapse or close, causing coughing and trouble breathing. Heart disease can cause coughing, especially if the heart becomes enlarged and pushes up on the part of the trachea inside of your dog’s chest.  Lung disease can make it more difficult to breathe, especially if there is a tumor or fluid in the lungs. Your veterinarian will need diagnostics, a thorough examination, and a good medical history for your dog in order to rule out these other causes.

Treating kennel cough

If your dog is experiencing any of these signs, then make sure to bring him to your veterinarian right away for an examination. Your vet will perform a physical examination, check your dog’s temperature, and listen closely to his lungs. Sometimes, blood work is recommended to look at your dog’s white blood cell count, and x-rays may be recommended to look at your dog’s airways and lungs. If everything appears to be fine, and your dog just has some coughing, then the vet may prescribe an antibiotic which will target the bacterial infection or can help with secondary bacterial infections due to viruses. Cough medications like guaifenesin can also help keep your dog comfortable. However, if your dog has abnormal x-rays, then he may have pneumonia due to kennel cough.

If your dog is dehydrated, lethargic, not eating, having trouble breathing, or has a fever, then your vet may recommend more intensive supportive care in a hospital setting. This includes oxygen cage therapy, nebulization treatments, intravenous fluid therapy, and injectable broad-spectrum antibiotics. They will also be able to help your dog eat when he needs to eat. He will receive round-the-clock monitoring and could be hospitalized for a few days.

a white dog laying outside on a plaid blanket

If you suspect that your dog has an upper respiratory infection, then make sure to contact your veterinarian right away, and keep your dog isolated from other pets in your household in case your dog is contagious. Once your dog is diagnosed and treated, he should start to feel better after the first couple of days. Because the infection can be spread for several days, and even if your dog isn’t showing any more symptoms, it is important to keep him away from other dogs. Make sure that your dog gets plenty of rest, and do not let him run off-leash because he can overdo it while running, and this will make his cough worse. If you need to walk him outside, make sure that you use a harness and avoid using a collar. This is because your dog’s airways will still be sensitive and inflamed, and collars put more pressure on a dog’s trachea when dogs pull forward on their leashes.

Vaccination is extremely important, and there are vaccinations available that protect against many of the pathogens that can cause kennel cough, such asBordetella, parainfluenza, and canine influenza. TheBordetella vaccine is available in three forms: oral, intranasal, and injectable. After adequate boostering, these vaccines can provide protection for up to one year. However, places with large dog populations such as boarding facilities may require that theBordetella vaccine is given every six months for maximum prevention. No vaccination is 100% effective, and a few vaccinated dogs can still develop kennel cough. However, these dogs usually have few to no symptoms compared to unvaccinated dogs.

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Kennel cough has many names, and they all refer to infections that affect the upper respiratory tract and cause coughing. It is best to assume that the coughing may be contagious to other animals, and so it is important to contact your veterinarian right away in order to rule out other causes for your dog’s cough. Kennel cough usually resolves after a few days, but more severe cases require intensive hospital care and monitoring. The sooner that your dog is treated, the sooner he can go back to running, playing, and enjoying his time with you.


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Meet The Author

Author Dr. Erica Irish

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine.