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Everything You Need to Know About Kennel Cough in Dogs

Here are the symptoms to lookout for, plus how to treat it.

by Dr. Shawna Garner, DVM
January 28, 2021
A dog coughing
Isaiah & Taylor Photography / Stocksy

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If your dog has a bad cough and runny nose, they could have kennel cough (aka, canine infectious tracheobronchitis). Kennel cough is highly contagious and can be contracted anywhere dogs hang out, from the dog park to daycare. Chances are, you’ve heard of kennel cough — but what is it, exactly? 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, so 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. However, dogs can contract kennel cough from anywhere that they come into contact with other dogs, whether they are out on a walk or playing in the yard.

What Are the Symptoms of Kennel Cough?

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

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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, as some people confuse the two. A dry throat can also make it uncomfortable for dogs to eat, so kennel cough may lead to a decrease in your dog’s appetite.

Dogs with kennel cough may also experience a mild fever (any temperature above 102.5°F 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, then this may be a sign that something is wrong. Call your vet if you’re worried your dog has kennel cough.

How is Kennel Cough Treated?

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 is vital for keeping their strength up, as is maintaining a nutritious diet. 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.

In more serious cases, veterinary attention may be required, especially if the illness persists for more than 3-5 days. A vet may prescribe either cough suppressants or antibiotics to help a dog fight off the infection. Since 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 around 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. However, due to 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, as geriatric canines tend to have weaker immune systems, putting them at greater risk of illness. As well as being important for your dog’s health, 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, so 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.