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Kennel Cough in Dogs

Sick dog on bed
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Severity: i Medium - High
Life stage: Puppy, Adult, Senior
  • Kennel cough is a contagious disease in dogs characterized by a persistent cough of several days.
  • It is very contagious between dogs, which means it can spread easily in shelter environments or in multi-dog households.
  • Kennel cough is not often serious. For most dogs, it will subside without treatment
  • Puppies are more susceptible to kennel cough and any puppy showing symptoms of kennel cough needs veterinary care right away.
  • There are multiple ways to prevent kennel cough, the most important of which is vaccinating your dog.

Kennel cough is the most common infectious disease of the respiratory system in dogs. It can range from a mild cough lasting a few days to severe pneumonia and rarely death. Kennel cough in dogs can be frustrating for pet parents to deal with but knowing what to watch for and how to prevent it is key. Read on to better understand this complex disease.

What is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough is a contagious disease in dogs characterized by a persistent cough of several days. Dogs with this disease were recently exposed to other dogs. It almost always involves a mixture of multiple viruses and bacteria (multiple pathogens), which means that each dog’s symptoms and treatment needs will vary.

All of the kennel cough pathogens break down the lining of various parts of the respiratory tract, causing inflammation and infection. The respiratory system goes from the nose all the way to the lungs, including the nasal cavity (chamber of the nose), pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), trachea (windpipe), and lungs. Inside the lungs are passageways for air called bronchi that lead to smaller branches called bronchioles.

What Does Kennel Cough Sound Like?

Kennel cough usually sounds like a nagging and dry cough, which happens over and over for a short period of time. Most people describe the sound as a honk. In other dogs, the cough is deeper and sounds wet, so that you would imagine your dog producing phlegm (mucus) from inside his chest. Occasionally the cough is so persistent that your dog may appear to choke for a second, and you’ll hear a sharp hacking noise from the throat.

How Long Does Kennel Cough Last?

Dog looking worried in the garden

Each dog varies in how long kennel cough will last. It depends on the specific pathogens that your dog has, his age, and if he has other underlying medical conditions. The majority of cases have an incubation period of three to seven days. This means that three to seven days after your dog is exposed to other dogs, he will develop symptoms.

Dogs tend to have kennel cough for seven to 14 days once they show symptoms. Treatment is not always warranted, but the length of time your dog appears ill will shorten with certain treatments. Most dogs can fight the infection at home with your help, but some will require a veterinarian visit.

Is Kennel Cough Contagious?

Kennel cough is very contagious between dogs, which means it can spread easily in shelter environments or in multi-dog households.

Luckily, the majority of pathogens involved in kennel cough are not contagious to other species besides dogs. However, there are three exceptions:

Canine parainfluenza virus (CPiV): Cats can be infected but will not show symptoms. This is important in that cats can spread the infection to other dogs or cats. This virus is not contagious to humans.

Canine distemper virus (CDV): This virus is found in dogs as well as ferrets and other wildlife. Your dog can spread this virus to those other species but not humans or cats.

Bordetella bronchiseptica: This bacterium can be spread to cats as well as humans, but this is very rare. Humans that get Bordetella from dogs have other medical conditions that severely decrease their immune system.

Kennel Cough in Puppies

Puppy being examined at the veterinarian

Puppies are more susceptible to kennel cough than adult dogs because their immune systems are not yet mature enough to fight off all infections. For this reason, vaccination is critical to your puppy and all veterinary recommendations must be followed. Any puppy showing symptoms of kennel cough needs veterinary care right away.

Some of the pathogens associated with kennel cough are particularly bad for puppies. For example, the canine parainfluenza virus (CPiV) can cause neurologic disease (disease in the brain and spinal cord). In general, puppies are more likely to develop more serious diseases, such as pneumonia (lung infection), than adult dogs. At least 50 percent of young dogs with pneumonia have Bordetella (1).

How Do Dogs Get Kennel Cough?

Dogs exercising in a kennel

The most common places dogs are exposed to kennel cough are boarding facilities, breeders, groomers, or animal shelters. Kennel cough is usually spread by cough (aerosol transmission) or direct contact between dogs, such as play. A couple of pathogens are so potent that they can exist on items touched by an infected dog; if that item is not properly disinfected, another dog can get the disease from the item. This is called fomite transmission.

Dogs are more likely to contract kennel cough if they are stressed (such as being housed in a boarding facility), if they are unvaccinated (or out-of-date on vaccinations), or if they are less than 1 year of age.

Symptoms of Kennel Cough in Dogs

Puppy in a kennel looking sad

The most common symptom of kennel cough may be a cough, but dogs will often demonstrate other symptoms as well, such as:

  • Decreased activity
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Nose discharge (clear or yellow-green)
  • Eye discharge and/or redness

In some severe cases, dogs can display symptoms of pneumonia. Pneumonia affects your dog’s ability to breathe, so you may note:

  • Lack of activity
  • Lack of appetite
  • Exaggerated breathing (the belly is working hard with the chest to move in and out)
  • Fast rate of breathing
  • Loud breathing
  • Bluish tint to the tongue, lips, and gums

If your dog displays any of these symptoms of pneumonia, he needs emergency care.

Is Kennel Cough Serious?

Kennel cough is not often serious. For most dogs, it will subside without treatment. Because it tends to be more serious in puppies and unvaccinated dogs, these types of dogs should receive veterinary care right away if symptoms are noted.

Kennel cough becomes serious in dogs if it infects the lungs, since it affects your dog’s ability to breathe, but not all dogs will develop pneumonia.

Diagnosing Dogs with Kennel Cough

Sick dog laying on a bed

Veterinarians typically diagnose this condition presumptively by examination and history, meaning without tests. The majority of dogs present symptoms that respond well to general treatments, so testing is not necessary. In addition, testing for specific pathogens is rarely useful as it can be fairly inaccurate based on when in the course of disease the test is performed, as well as other factors.

X-rays of the chest may be a necessary test for your dog, depending on his symptoms. Your veterinarian will listen to the lungs with a stethoscope, and while this is important, it cannot diagnose pneumonia with certainty. X-rays will show if pneumonia is present, and treatment will change drastically if it is.

Kennel Cough Treatment for Dogs

Dog eating from his dog bowl

Veterinary intervention is not always necessary for kennel cough. Most dogs will recover without veterinary treatment, but they need their pet parents’ support. For example, if your dog’s appetite has decreased, you could offer him some plain cooked chicken (no bones!) and rice to entice him to eat until he is feeling better.

In some cases, a dog needs veterinary treatment for kennel cough because he is not eating and becomes dehydrated. In other cases, yellow-green nose or eye discharge indicates a bacterial infection that would go away much quicker with treatment.

You should bring your dog to the veterinarian if he is not eating for more than 24 hours, vomiting, experiences a significant decrease in activity, weakness, trouble breathing, yellow-green eye or nose discharge, or any other concerns that do not improve within 48 hours.

Kennel Cough Medicine for Dogs

None of the viruses that cause kennel cough have antiviral medications (medications that kill the virus). Antibiotics can kill the bacteria involved in kennel cough, but bacteria are not always involved.

Types of antibiotics that may be prescribed include:

  • Tetracyclines (doxycycline, minocycline)
  • Azithromycin
  • Enrofloxacin
  • Amoxicillin

Many times, a dog’s cough is so persistent that your veterinarian may recommend something to decrease it.  If the cough is severe, your veterinarian may choose to prescribe an opioid such as hydrocodone for your dog. This is rarely needed though and may actually prolong the cough since opioids may decrease the flow of phlegm out of your dog’s chest.

Ask your veterinarian about cough suppression options. DO NOT give your dog any medication without consulting your veterinarian first.

General Cost to Treat Kennel Cough in Dogs

For most dogs, an examination and medication to go home with will cost approximately $100-$200. If X-rays are warranted, add an additional $150-$300 depending on size of the dog and severity of symptoms.

If your dog develops pneumonia, he may be required to remain in the veterinary hospital for intensive care. The cost varies depending on where you live as well as how severe his disease is but can range anywhere from $500-$3,000.

How to Prevent Kennel Cough

Puppy at veterinarian getting a vaccine

There are multiple ways to prevent kennel cough, the most important of which is vaccinating your dog and keeping him up-to-date on his vaccines. Ensure your dog’s latest vaccine was at least two weeks prior to bringing him to the dog park, groomers, or boarding facility.

Avoid interactions with other dogs that appear sick. Choose a boarding facility, breeder, and/or groomer that requires all dogs be appropriately vaccinated by a veterinary clinic and that appears clean with fresh air.

Kennel Cough Vaccine

There are two vaccines commonly used that are effective against kennel cough: distemper (DAPP) and Bordetella (Bordetella bronchiseptica). According to the AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines:

Distemper is a core vaccine required for all dogs. It protects against the pathogens CDV, CAV-2, and CPiV, as well as canine parvovirus (a severe disease of the gastrointestinal tract). Starting at 6 weeks of age, puppies will receive an injection every two to three weeks until they are 16 weeks old, again one year later, and then every three years. Adult dogs will receive one injection, then one year later, and then every three years. Side effects may include soreness at the injection site lasting one to two days. More serious reactions are exceedingly rare.

Bordetella is a non-core vaccine, meaning it’s not required for all dogs. It protects against Bordetella bronchiseptica. It is given as an injection or drops in the nose (the drops may be combined with protection against other viruses). Dogs will receive a booster every year. If an injection is given, it MUST be boostered two to four weeks after the first dose, then every year after. Side effects may include soreness at the injection site lasting one to two days. More serious reactions such as full body allergy are rare. Sneezing, clear eye or nose discharge may be noted a couple of days after drops in the nose are given, and will only last a few days.

There are two vaccines available against canine influenza, covering two different strains. They are infrequently used, and only in dogs in high risk areas. Outbreaks occur sporadically across the United States. Talk to your veterinarian for more information on whether this non-core vaccination is necessary for your dog.

Related Conditions

  • Conjunctivitis (eye infection)
  • Upper respiratory infection (URI)
  • Pneumonia
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