Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
Sick puppy at the vets

Kennel cough is a respiratory disease which affects dogs. It is caused by a number of different bacteria and viruses, often acting in combination.

Kennel cough is also known as canine respiratory disease complex, infectious canine tracheobronchitis and infectious canine tracheitis.

What Causes Kennel Cough

Kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that can spread very quickly between dogs. Despite the fact that it is extremely contagious it does not usually cause serious disease in healthy dogs. Kennel cough can affect dogs of any age that are exposed to it, although young puppies or older dogs with a weakened immune system due to other health conditions can be more seriously affected.

Kennel cough is caused by either one or a combination of different bacteria and viruses. These include:

  • Bordetella bronchoseptica – It is rare for humans to be infected but this bacteria is closely related to the bacteria responsible for Whooping Cough.
  • Pseudomonas species
  • Escherichia coli
  • Klebsiella pneumonia
  • Mycoplasma species
  • Canine adenovirus 1
  • Canine adenovirus 2
  • Canine herpes virus
  • Canine parainfluenza 2
  • Canine distemper virus

It is thought that the majority of cases of kennel cough are caused by an initial viral infection, and then in some cases a possible secondary bacterial infection.

How do Dogs Get Kennel Cough?

Dogs in poor conditions

Dogs are most likely to get kennel cough in environments where there are lots of other dogs, such as at boarding kennels, in behaviour and training groups, at dog play areas and at dog shows.

Kennel cough can be spread in a number of ways between dogs, by direct contact with an infected dog, droplets in the air or by contact with objects or surfaces, which are contaminated.

Symptoms of Kennel Cough in Dogs

Kennel cough or infectious canine tracheobronchitis causes the upper airways to become irritated and inflamed, which results in a ‘cough’. Most of the time the disease is self-limiting and dogs recover on their own but in puppies it can cause broncopneumonia (inflammation of the lungs that originates in the bronchi or bronchioles) and, in older dogs or those with a weakened immune system, it can lead to chronic bronchitis.

The type of cough which kennel cough causes dogs to develop is a dry, unproductive cough often described as a ‘goose honk’. Dogs may also appear as if they are retching. These signs typically develop around 5 to 10 days after a dog has been in contact with other infected dogs. The initial cough usually becomes less severe within 3 to 5 days of its development. Kennel cough may also cause some cold like symptoms, such as sneezing, a snotty nose and watering eyes, swollen glands and wheezy breathing, but these symptoms are not always seen. In addition, some dogs may seem a little subdued, loose their appetite or have a fever for a couple of days.

Dogs suffering from kennel cough will often cough easily if their throat area is rubbed or touched and any coughing is usually made worse if the dog becomes excited, during exercise or if the air in the environment is cold.

Can Kennel Cough in Dogs be Prevented?

Bulldog wearing a medical mask

There are vaccinations which provide protection against some of the agents that can contribute towards kennel cough in dogs, such as canine distemper virus, parainfluenza and canine adenovirus. These often come in a vaccine that consists of a combination of these. Puppies can first be vaccinated at 6 to 8 weeks old and then again every 3 or 4 weeks until they are 14 to 16 weeks of age. An annual booster vaccination is then required – although in some cases a booster is recommended every 6 months.

There are also intranasal (administered as drops into the nose) vaccines that can provide some protection against Bordetella bronchiseptica if the risk of infection is deemed high enough. This can be given to puppies that are older than 3 weeks of age and lasts for up to a year. If this vaccination is given before a dog goes into kennels it should ideally be given around 2 weeks beforehand.

Due to the fact that there are multiple infectious agents involved in the illness it is still possible for a vaccinated dog to develop kennel cough. Any immunity which a dog develops towards the agents which cause kennel cough either as a result of infection or from vaccination does not always tend to be one hundred per cent or last indefinitely.

Other measures which should be practiced in areas where there are large concentrations of dogs kept together are appropriate ventilation and regular and thorough cleaning and disinfection of kennel areas, toys, water bowls and any other objects which dogs come into contact with.

Can Kennel Cough in Dogs Be Treated?

Sick Beagle

As the colloquial name suggests kennel cough most commonly causes a cough in dogs. This is usually a dry, unproductive, hacking type of cough and many dogs do not show any other signs. Generally any signs of kennel cough should gradually improve on their own with no treatment after the illness initially develops within a period of around 3 weeks from the start of the illness. An appropriate and balanced diet, good hygiene and removing any additional elements from a dogs environment that may contribute towards infection can all play a role in a dog making a fast recovery from kennel cough.

In the few cases where kennel cough causes more severe side effects and dogs are not able to overcome the infection on their own, antibiotics may be given. These should only be used in chronic cases though and the correct type of antibiotic should be carefully selected after culture and sensitivity tests for the bacteria responsible in each case. Your vet will not usually treat your dog with antibiotics as a first port of call if it is diagnosed with kennel cough.

Other medications that may be used to treat kennel cough are aimed at relieving the symptoms of the cough, such as a cough linctus or on occasion cough suppressants if the cough is very persistent. On the rare occasions that a dog becomes severely ill with kennel cough, intensive care with fluids and additional treatments may be needed.

If there is any doubt as to whether kennel cough is the cause of a cough x-rays of the thorax should be performed to rule out any other reasons for coughing which may need alternative treatments.

Other measures which are advisable include restricting the amount of exercise the dog receives to an absolute minimum for around a week, as this can exacerbate any coughing. Any collars that may press on the throat area should be removed and a harness should be used for walking. It is also important to always remember that kennel cough is extremely contagious and whilst your dog is suffering from the illness and for a few days after any coughing subsides you should try and avoid it coming into contact with any other dogs.

Key Points to Remember

Although it may seem alarming if your dog suddenly develops a harsh, dry cough, it is important to keep in mind that the majority of dogs recover from kennel cough with no additional treatment other than a bit of tender loving care. Kennel cough is extremely contagious so dogs can pick it up easily in many different situations.

If you are unsure whether your dog is suffering from kennel cough the best thing to do is call your vet who will advise you further if anything needs to be done on a case-by-case basis. It is also essential to try and be a responsible owner and avoid the spread of the illness to other dogs, keeping your dog away from other canines during the time it is ill and for several days afterwards.


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