Knowing how to help a dog with kennel cough can be a frustrating battle. My vaccinated Cocker Spaniel fought kennel cough three times in 12 years. Fortunately, we beat kennel cough and learned a lot about this contagious infection that affects the windpipe (trachea) and large airways (bronchi) of dogs.
Infectious canine tracheobronchitis is the official medical name for kennel cough. Unfortunately, there are several causes and strains of this illness, similar to the flu in humans. Many dogs aren’t even exposed to kennels when they start coughing. Fortunately, there are treatments for this canine respiratory infection along with things diligent pet parents can do at home to make their dog more comfortable.
Most infected dogs will cough, honk, retch, and repeat for days or weeks. It’s an unmistakable scary cough that sounds like a duck honking. Usually, viruses will weaken a dog’s immune system and attack the respiratory tract. Dogs can spread it to other dogs, and it can be dangerous. We’ll explain the myths about kennel cough, what veterinary experts have to say, and how to make your pooch comfortable if he gets hit with this infection.
What Is Kennel Cough?
Kennel cough can infect dogs anywhere at any time at any age. It isn’t breed specific and your dog doesn’t have to be exposed to a “kennel” to become infected.
This disease is found throughout the world and is known to infect a high percentage of dogs at least once during their lifetime. It is also sometimes referred to as Bordetella bronchiseptica, which is the bacterium that causes it. Veterinarians administer a Bordetella vaccine to try and prevent kennel cough. This is why some people call kennel cough “Bordetella.”
Ned F. Kuehn, DVM, MS, DACVIM, says it is called kennel cough is because the illness spreads rapidly among susceptible dogs in close confinement to one another. This is common in veterinary hospitals, kennels, and dog shelters.
A veterinarian should always examine a dog who exhibits coughing or any signs of kennel cough. The illness can be primary or secondary in nature and is usually secondary to a viral infection in the dog’s respiratory system.
Check out this diagram of a dog’s respiratory system. When the upper airways become inflamed, kennel cough often results. Any number of microorganisms, pathogens, viruses, or irritants can cause this inflammation, so the level of protection of kennel cough vaccine is questionable. More about that further down.
How Do Dogs Get Kennel Cough?
About five to ten days after exposure to infected or susceptible dogs, kennel cough may rear its ugly head. Sometimes called canine infectious respiratory disease, or CIRD, any situation that brings dogs together is ripe for spreading of this canine communicable disease.
“Some dogs have been known to become infected following well-pet visits to a veterinarian, doggie daycare, or training class,” according to Whole Dog Journal. “A dog or puppy can be infected and shed a virus (that can infect other dogs) before his owner has noticed any symptoms! Some infected dogs never show signs of illness, even as they infect other dogs and puppies.”
In my Cocker Spaniel’s case, we believe he acquired it at the dog park (which we stopped visiting 10 years ago) and the dog groomer. He was in close proximity to dogs and despite being fully vaccinated, still wound up with this infectious condition.
Your dog can simply walk down the street, and he can get infected by kennel cough. A small percentage of dogs show no symptoms but act as carriers and shed the virus. Your dog sniffs the same area or walks near that spot and boom: he’s infected.
If your dog is infected, symptoms usually appear within three to ten days after exposure. Like people who get a cold, kennel cough may simply work itself out. Or not. It can worsen, which is why your vet needs to see the dog.
Symptoms of Kennel Cough
To the dog parent, the cough sounds alarming, frequent, and is sometimes off and on throughout both day and night. In our dog’s case, he was worse in the first few weeks, but the cough did linger.
Symptoms of mild to severe kennel cough include, but are not limited to:
- Harsh, dry cough following by retching and/or gagging like a goose honk
- The cough may be induced with gentle palpation of the voice box (larynx) or trachea
- Lack of appetite
- Nasal discharge
- Eye discharge
Kennel cough can advance to the lower respiratory tract of a dog and cause pneumonia. Each infected dog is different and kennel cough can be caused by any number of reasons, as seen above. It is imperative that your dog be examined, monitored, and treated by a veterinarian according to their specific symptoms.
How Long Does Kennel Cough Last?
Dogs usually cough for a week or more and then the severity diminishes. However, the disease itself lasts for 10 to 20 days in most cases. Chest x-rays are performed to determine how severe the disease is and to exclude other reasons for the cough.
What Does Kennel Cough Sound Like?
The harsh, dry, cough or honking sound followed by a retching or gagging behavior are classic signs of kennel cough. A cough may also be due to other reasons.
Should your dog have a cough, never attempt to self-diagnose and always seek veterinary attention. A cough can indicate any number of things: From allergies to a cold to a heart issue. This is what my Cocker Spaniel sounded like during a bout with kennel cough:
How To Help a Dog With Kennel Cough
First and foremost, call your vet and make an appointment so a proper diagnosis can be made and a treatment plan formulated. Because it is caused by a virus or infection, (or multiple reasons), there may be several factors that contribute to your dog’s kennel cough. No two dogs are alike. Since the outward signs are similar in both bacterial and viral forms, it all gets lumped into a “kennel cough” diagnosis.
Once the diagnosis is made, many dogs will recover at home without medication or treatment. My dog received medical and holistic treatment all three times he encountered the disease.
Never attempt to self-medicate your dog. Do not give your dog over-the-counter cough medicine. A veterinarian should always be consulted for questions about your dog’s health.
Based on my dog’s condition, here’s how his veterinarian treated kennel cough:
- Emergency vet visit over Thanksgiving weekend, routine exam, and auscultation (listening to Dexter’s lungs).
- Dispensed doxycycline two per day for 10 days and Temaril-P to help suppress cough for four days. (NOTE: I am not happy about Temaril-P’s potential side effects but I deduce four days is a fair period of time to suppress his nasty cough.)
- We were NOT given antibiotics, as the vet told us the antibiotics will not affect the viral form of kennel cough.
“If there was an infectious reason (most likely bacteria) why Dexter is coughing, the cough should have significantly improved (but perhaps not yet resolved) after five days of doxy and 4 days on Temaril P. Tracheal irritation or collapse could be contributing,” Dr. Patrick Mahaney advises. “Get that recheck and x-rays soon to rule in or out any more concerning conditions. If he’s otherwise feeling well as you describe, then there’s less of a concern.”
After two weeks’ time and fearing pneumonia, Dexter’s cough was the same and the retching, gagging sound at the end continued. Back to the vet’s office.
We are escorted into the “cat section” of the practice because kennel cough is not contagious from dog to cat, but it is communicable from dog to dog. Dexter is not allowed to be around any dogs during his “quarantine” so even his outdoor time is limited to a small patch of grass in the yard and then back inside.
Dexter is coughing on palpation of the chest or throat, after rising, but is able to exercise and shows energy, an appetite, and an interest in treats and playing throughout the entire kennel cough ordeal. These are good signs. Some dogs do not bode so well and are listless, may run a fever, and/or lose their appetite.
He is now sneezing and has a clear discharge from his left nostril. After a complete exam and chest x-ray, kennel cough is re-confirmed and more medications are prescribed. These include Baytril antibiotic for 10 days and Vistaril one two times a day, the latter which is a sedative to help my dog sleep better.
About 10 days later, my dog had a string of drool hanging from his mouth and his left eyeball looked funky. Here’s the photo below. Back to the vet.
Dexter had inner ear inflammation and was diagnosed with neuralgia, or nerve inflammation. We are told kennel cough signs can last weeks to months in some dogs. Dexter is still considered contagious at this point. He is prescribed Previcox, an anti-inflammatory.
But wait, there’s more.
Two days before Christmas, Dexter has a funky smell in his left ear and his left nostril is nasty and crusty. The vet diagnoses him with a yeast and bacterial infection of the middle ear, slight bacteria in the right ear, a sinus infection, but the kennel cough isn’t as bad. Celebrate!
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Holistic Treatments For A Dog’s Kennel Cough
In addition to the medications, I invested in a warm steam vaporizer. It was under $20 bucks and helped open my dog’s lungs so he could breathe better. I closed the bathroom door off, put the warm steam vaporizer on, and sat with Dexter twice a day for several weeks for 30 minutes at a time.
I learned about honey for dogs with throat issues and cough. After confirming its safety with my vet, I gave Dexter half a tablespoon of manuka honey once or twice a day based on his size.. Thanks to the antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties of honey, it can help to soothe the dog’s throat. Be cognizant of the amount of natural sugar in honey, especially if your dog has diabetes.
When I discussed my dog’s condition with long-time Cocker Spaniel foster mom, Naomi Lukaszewski, she wondered why the vet wasn’t adding a probiotic to Dexter’s regimen of medications. Lightbulb moment!
“Carol, could it be that your dog has a yeast infection in his ears as a side effect to antibiotics,” Naomi asked me.
The vet prescribed Surolan ear drops, Clavamox, continue the Prevacox, and I asked about a probiotic, which was given.
Should My Dog Get the Bordetella Vaccine?
Dexter received the kennel cough vaccine every six months for years and then I decided to stop it. Every dog is different and every pet parent must assess what is best for their dog.
Dr. Laurie Coger, author of Vaccines Explained: The Wholistic Vet’s Guide to Vaccinating Your Dog, says, “I’m a fan of frequent low level exposure. Get your dog (or kid for that matter) out and about, and exposed to a variety of germs, in small doses. That way he can build immunity without getting the disease.”
She continues, “I am not sure why you are giving the kennel cough vaccine at all, given that we know it does not prevent the disease, only lessens the severity, and that it addresses only two pathogens, when there are dozens of organisms involved. Giving the vaccine every six months is contrary to the vaccine label (AKA “off-label”).
Dogs vaccinated with MLV vaccines are shedding vaccine virus — so exposure to them is sort of a secondary exposure vaccination. That’s my theory of why a dog that has never had a DAP vaccine will titer as protected against distemper and parvo. The exposure to a recently vaccinated dog triggered their immune response.”
The kennel cough vaccine, Bordetella bronchiseptica, is available as an oral vaccine, an intranasal vaccine, or an as an injection.
Some kennel owners, doggy daycare centers, dog training facilities, and groomers require dogs have the Bordetella vaccine to try and prevent the spread of kennel cough. My dog hasn’t had kennel cough since stopping the vaccine for it, but he is as prone to it as vaccinated dogs.
Of note, I am not anti-vaccine; I am, however, anti over-vaccination. When your dog gets cancer as a side effect at the site of yearly injections, one tends to rethink the toxins and chemicals injected into the dog’s body.
Dogs can still get kennel cough even if they were vaccinated due to the sheer volume of strains involved. The vaccine does not protect against all of them.
Is Kennel Cough Common In Show Dogs?
Holly Lawson has dealt with kennel cough many times in her dog show travels. Lawson recalls taking her litter of five-month-old Cocker Spaniel puppies for a routine exam and shots, which included the Bordetella vaccine.
She took the puppies to a handling class where they were infected with kennel cough. It turned into parainfluenza despite treatment followed by mycoplasma and pneumonia.
“To top it all off,” Lawson recalls, “the puppies tonsils got infected.” The Bordetella vaccine manufacturer paid for all of her medical bills.
Lawson knows the Bordetella vaccine is important, but recognizes it doesn’t cover every pathogen against it.
“My dogs ate, not like they normally did, and they did play… they did run a slight fever through it all… but, they needed their tonsils out since the antibiotics didn’t get rid of the infection,” she shares.
How Contagious Is Kennel Cough?
Kennel cough is very contagious and spreads like wildfire. It can be transmitted from an infected dog by simply a casual sniff. I stopped going to dog parks, I learned to groom my dog at home, and we don’t board him or put him in situations with big groups of dogs.
Even if a dog has experienced immunity due to natural infection, VCA Hospitals advise it is neither solid nor long-lasting. They also indicate, “we cannot expect vaccines to do much better.” Immunity varies by circumstance and dog along with his exposure and situations.
Dogs with kennel cough should not be exposed to other dogs. My dog’s veterinarian recommends dogs with kennel cough be kept away from other dogs for at least 14 days. That is how long it takes to completely shed the virus from their system so they don’t infect other dogs.
The disease can be spread by contact with items the dog has been around like clothing, food and water bowls, bedding, and crates. If your dog is infected, wash all items thoroughly and frequently. If you congregate around large amounts of dogs, wash your hands and don’t allow dogs to drink from common water areas. I washed all of Dexter’s toys as well.
Can A Dog Die From Kennel Cough?
It can lead to severe pneumonia and rarely, death. Young puppies and those with weakened immune systems such as senior dogs or those with pre-existing conditions of the immune system may be more susceptible to death.
Since the illness affects the lungs and the dog’s ability to breathe, they can get pneumonia which left untreated, can lead to death.
Can Dogs Spread Kennel Cough To Humans?
No, in most circumstances, humans cannot get kennel cough from a dog. People with immunocompromised systems should be extra careful.
Those undergoing chemotherapy, people with cancer, someone who is chronically ill, and anyone with an immune system disease or virus should take precautions to avoid a dog with kennel cough.
If a person touches a dog with kennel cough and then pets or rubs their own dog, there is a chance of spreading it. A long series of events would have to occur for a person to give kennel cough to their dog. Always wash your hands and clothes before engaging with your own dog(s) if you are around other dogs or work in a dog-related environment.
Many infected dogs will continue to play, eat, and drink as they normally do as the virus works its way out of their systems. Playing indoors for too long irritated by dog’s throat and caused a coughing fit, so we kept heavy playtime to a minimum for a week or two.
I recommend you perform due diligence, talk to your vet, do research, don’t get a vaccine just because you are told you have to: Question things, converse with your vet, have a dialogue, and know that your dog cannot speak on his or her own behalf. You are your dog’s best friend and his voice.
Has your dog ever been diagnosed with kennel cough? Let us know in the comments below.