What is Kennel Cough?

A brown dog looking at the camera

Imagine you're sitting in your living room with your dog and all of a sudden he starts coughing and hacking. Just as humans get the common cold and have coughing spells caused by respiratory viruses, dogs also are subject to these kinds of illnesses. Kennel cough often sounds much worse than it is, prompting worry and anxiety in dog owners, but educating yourself on what kennel cough is, what kennel cough sounds like and how kennel cough is treated can ease your fears and help you decide on the right course of action. We cover all this and more in this guide.

What is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough in dogs is very similar to the common cold in humans. It's an infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the larynx (what lets your dog bark and growl) and the trachea, which is your dog's windpipe. The main symptom is a loud, hacking cough that produces phlegm, and it's very contagious between dogs.

Kennel Cough Causes

Kennel cough is the common name for an upper respiratory infection that can be caused by several kinds of viruses and bacteria. The most common cause of kennel cough is the Bordetella bronchiseptica strain of bacteria. This is why you may also hear people refer to kennel cough as Bordetella. However, kennel cough can be caused by other things, and your dog is most likely to be infected with the Bordetella bacteria when his immune system is weakened by an already existing viral infection. Common canine viruses that can increase your dog's risk of catching kennel cough are:

  • Canine adenovirus
  • Canine distemper virus
  • Canine herpes
  • Parainfluenza virus
  • Canine reovirus

Symptoms of Kennel Cough

The main symptom of kennel cough is a loud productive cough. So what does kennel cough sound like? It's very similar to the noise your dog makes as he's hacking and getting ready to vomit. The cough is also very consistent, to the point of near constant in severe cases. Your dog may also have extra discharge of the nose or eye or be sneezing more often, but most dogs handle kennel cough fairly well and maintain their usual activity and appetite levels throughout.

How Do Dogs Get Kennel Cough?

Dogs can get kennel cough anytime they are exposed to a virus or bacteria. However, because of its very contagious nature, it's especially common to get it at boarding kennels, which is why it's commonly referred to as kennel cough. Your dog can get kennel cough from being around any dog that has it, but other risk factors include:

  • Being kept in crowded conditions
  • Poor ventilation
  • Cold temperatures
  • Exposure to dust or cigarette smoke, which can irritate the respiratory tract
  • Travel-induced stress, which can weaken the immune system

Kennel cough is spread through the air. When a dog that is infected coughs, droplets containing the bacteria or virus are put out into the air and spread to other animals in the vicinity. It can also be spread by a dog sharing toys, bowls or other objects with an infected dog. This is one reason why it's so important to keep your dog under quarantine if you think he is showing signs of kennel cough.

Kennel cough has an incubation period of 2 to 14 days, and during this time, the dog won't be showing any actual symptoms but will still be contagious and can spread it to other dogs. Once symptoms begin, kennel cough usually lasts 2-3 weeks, although it can take some dogs that have medical conditions or are older up to 6 weeks to recover. There are rare instances when kennel cough can progress into pneumonia, which can be very serious. When your dog starts to display symptoms of kennel cough, contact your vet to discuss a treatment plan, and if symptoms don't improve or worsen, schedule a follow-up visit.

What is the Kennel Cough Treatment Plan?

In most cases, kennel cough clears up on its own and no special treatment is needed. You can take steps to make your dog more comfortable, such as removing his collar and using a humidifier to ease coughing, but most don't show signs of being ill or distressed. The cough is usually more irritating to the owner than the dog, and your vet may be able to prescribe a canine cough medicine or an anti-inflammatory to help soothe your dog's throat and cut down on the frequency of coughing. If the cough is caused by the Bordetella bacteria, your vet may also prescribe an antibiotic to help your dog's system fight the infection. If your dog is showing other signs of not feeling well or isn't eating normally, he may require a visit to the vet. Make sure to call ahead and let them know your dog has signs of kennel cough so the office can take steps to prevent the spread of the infection to other visiting dogs.

Preventing Kennel Cough

One of the best ways to prevent kennel cough is to make sure your dog has his full vaccinations as recommended by your veterinarian. There are vaccinations for canine influenza, canine parainfluenza, canine distemper and canine adenovirus type two and the bordetella vaccination. Vaccinations and boosters are also usually required by boarding facilities or doggy day cares to help prevent the spread. Keeping your dog at home if he shows signs of an illness can also help.

It's normal to also be worried about your dog spreading the virus to you or your other human family members, but most canine viruses can't infect humans. In most cases, kennel cough will not be contagious to your human family. However, there are rare instances in people with weakened immune systems where infections from the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria have happened. If you have a medical condition or other issue that causes a weakened immune system, it's a good idea to talk to your health care provider about any additional steps you may need to take to protect yourself.

Learn more about common canine illnesses and how to keep your dog as happy and healthy as possible by reading through the articles in our pet care archives.

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