by Dr. Jennifer Coates
Kennel cough is the name we give to a condition caused by several different types of infectious organisms. Bacteria like Bordetella bronchiseptica and mycoplasma, or viruses including parainfluenza and canine adenovirus 2 can all be involved, either alone or in combination. Whichever specific microbe(s) is involved, infection of the respiratory tract causes a dog’s larger airways—the trachea and bronchi—to become inflamed and irritated.
Kennel cough is extremely common, affecting a large proportion of dogs worldwide at least once during their life.
As the name implies, the primary symptom of kennel cough is coughing. Dogs generally start coughing several days after they are exposed to the causative viruses and/or bacteria, which typically occurs in settings where many dogs congregate indoors, such as boarding facilities, shelters, groomers, doggy daycare, shows, etc. The organisms that cause kennel cough are very contagious. Therefore, more than one individual from a particular location will often develop a cough during the same time period.
Dogs with kennel cough typically have a dry, hacking cough. Sometimes they will retch or gag after coughing. A veterinarian may be able to elicit a cough by pressing on the dog’s trachea. Coughing may persist for weeks because the lining of the airways has been damaged and takes a while to heal.
Some dogs with kennel cough also develop a runny nose and eyes. As long as the discharge is clear and your dog is not showing signs of discomfort, it is nothing to worry about. Wiping your dog’s nose and eyes with a warm, wet cloth can help prevent the discharge from building up.
Most dogs with kennel cough do not to feel all that sick. They continue to eat and drink and want to take part in all the activities that are normal for them, although activity can exacerbate their coughing. In some cases, however, kennel cough can progress to pneumonia.
Dogs with pneumonia are much sicker than those with uncomplicated kennel cough. Their cough will worsen and often becomes moist and productive. They can develop a fever, lose their appetite, become very lethargic, have trouble breathing, and even die without appropriate treatment.
Dogs who spend a lot of time around other dogs, particularly indoors, are at highest risk for kennel cough. Immunocompromised individuals, like puppies, older dogs and pregnant females, and those with underlying respiratory diseases tend to have especially severe symptoms associated with kennel cough.
Preventative vaccinations are available against some (e.g., Bordetella bronchiseptica, parainfluenza, canine adenovirus 2) but not all of the causes of kennel cough. At risk dogs should be vaccinated every 6-12 months, depending on their particular situation.
Dogs with kennel cough need to be isolated from other dogs until they are unlikely to spread the disease. Since we usually don’t know what organism is involved, veterinarians typically recommend a two week quarantine, although longer times may be necessary in some cases.
For more information, see Kennel Cough in Dogs.