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Kennel Cough Is the Worst. Here’s What You Need to Know About It

Kennel cough has been making headlines this year, but you can prevent your pup from catching this super contagious disease. (Hint: there’s a vaccine.)

by Dr. Shawna Garner, DVM
Updated October 3, 2022
A dog coughing
Isaiah & Taylor Photography / Stocksy

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In April of this year, South Florida had an outbreak of canine infectious tracheobronchitis, a.k.a. kennel cough. This news didn’t necessarily speed up the anxious heart rates of caring dog parents everywhere, but kennel cough is always cause for concern. As José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told USA Today at the time, there is always a chance the illness could pop up in a new community.

Sure enough, kennel cough has made headlines more than once this year. In August, New Hampshire reported a respiratory illness in dogs that resembled a combination of kennel cough and pneumonia. Areas in Alabama and Tennessee also reported kennel cough outbreaks in the summer of 2022.

Kennel cough is highly contagious and can be contracted anywhere dogs hang out — from the dog park to doggie daycare. Here’s everything you need to know, including how to spot the illness in your dog and how to treat it.

What is Kennel Cough in Dogs?

Clinically known as Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC), kennel cough is a broad term describing highly contagious infections that affect the respiratory system of dogs. Historically, it was thought to have been caused by the bacteria bordetella bronchiseptica; however, we now know other organisms are also involved, which is part of the reason that it is such a difficult disease to eradicate. There are over 20 viruses, bacteria, and mycoplasmas that may cause kennel cough, many of which have only been linked to the illness in the last 10 years. We are still learning about the disease.

Kennel cough spreads easily in the air, so coughing dogs are at risk of transmitting the disease to those around them. The name “kennel cough” became widely used because of the belief that the disease spreads most easily in kennels, where large numbers of dogs are kept together. Dogs can, however, contract kennel cough from anywhere that they come into contact with other dogs — are out on a walk or playing in the yard.

Most viruses can’t be spread between dogs and humans, but in very rare circumstances, kennel cough can be contagious to people with weakened immune systems because the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica can cross species. This highly contagious infection can also be transmitted to cats, so if you have a cat, keep them away from your pup.

What are Kennel Cough Symptoms in Dogs?

Kennel cough can cause some very unpleasant, flu-like symptoms in dogs, such as:

  • Dry, hacking cough

  • Gagging

  • Sneezing

  • Nasal discharge

  • Mild fever (above 102.5°F)

  • Lethargy

  • Decreased appetite

The most common symptom of kennel cough is a dry, forceful, persistent cough, which sounds like they have something caught in their throat. Sneezing, nasal discharge, and coughing up white phlegm are also signs that a dog may be suffering from kennel cough — be careful not to mistake this for vomiting; some people confuse the two. A dry throat can also make it uncomfortable for dogs to eat, so kennel cough can cause a decrease in your dog’s appetite.

Dogs with kennel cough may also experience a mild fever (any temperature above 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit is a warning sign), so take your dog’s temperature to spot the illness early. Lethargy is another symptom — if your dog seems tired or listless, this may be a sign that something is wrong. Call your vet if you’re worried your dog has kennel cough.

Kennel Cough Treatments

In more serious cases, veterinary attention may be required, especially if the illness persists for more than three to five days. A vet may prescribe either cough suppressants or antibiotics to help a dog fight off the infection.

Home Remedies for Kennel Cough

In mild cases, kennel cough will often go away on its own. But your dog will need lots of TLC. Keeping them supplied with clean, fresh water and maintaining a nutritious diet is vital for their healing process. If your dog is struggling to eat dry food (it may be uncomfortable for them with a sore, itchy throat), try soaking their dry food in warm water for a couple of hours to soften it up. Finally, keeping your dog warm and dry and providing them with support and company while they get better are all good ways to get them on the road to recovery.

Because kennel cough is highly contagious, if your dog has symptoms, keep them at home and away from other dogs. They should stay at home for at least seven days after they have stopped coughing to make sure they don’t infect other dogs.

How Can Kennel Cough Be Prevented?

Getting your dog vaccinated is the best way to prevent them from contracting kennel cough. Vaccination does not offer total protection against the disease, but it can give them the best possible chance of avoiding infection. The bordetella vaccine helps guard against the top three causes of kennel cough and can be administered once a puppy is six to eight weeks old.

This vaccine can come in a variety of forms, including intranasal drops, oral liquid, or an injection. Depending on the type of vaccine that is administered, your dog may need to get a booster between two and four weeks after the first dose. Because of the complicated nature of the illness, keeping your dog up-to-date with all of their vaccines is the safest option.

Although getting puppies vaccinated as soon as possible is best, it’s never too late to get your dog vaccinated. In fact, it’s important that older dogs are vaccinated for kennel cough. Geriatric canines tend to have weaker immune systems, putting them at greater risk of illness. Many boarding facilities and groomers will not accept dogs unless they are vaccinated, so be sure to stay up-to-date on your dog’s vaccinations.

It takes around three weeks for immunity to kick in after the vaccine; keep this in mind if you’re planning a vacation or trip to the groomer.

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Shawna-Garner

Dr. Shawna Garner, DVM

Dr. Shawna Garner, DVM is the lead vet Albright Veterinary Services. She is driven by a powerful desire to improve the relationship between our furry family members and their two-legged counterparts.