What is Kennel Cough?

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Dogs can pick up kennel cough playing in the park as well as in kennels.

As a boarding kennel owner and a vet, I am often asked about this illness. From my point of view it has an unfortunate name, which implies that it only occurs in kennels. In fact an outbreak can occur in any area, and because it spreads rapidly, sooner or later an infected dog is bound to enter the kennels. Outbreaks are more common in the summer months, but there have been several cases in my area recently. Perhaps the mild autumn we have had has provided the right conditions for spread.

Kennel Cough is a contagious illness of dogs, the main symptom of which is coughing. It should correctly be called Infectious Canine Bronchitis, or Infectious Canine Tracheobronchitis, but it is often known as Kennel Cough because of the fact that it spreads most readily when dogs are in close contact with each other. As well as in kennels, this would also occur at dog shows, training classes, veterinary surgeries, grooming parlours and many popular exercise places eg parks, beaches etc.

The infection is spread by air-borne droplets, like colds and flu in humans. Another similarity with flu in humans is that there are many different strains of infection, making it difficult to prevent entirely by vaccination.

One of the most common forms of kennel cough is caused by Bordatella Bronchiseptica, but a mixture of both bacteria and viruses may cause it. These agents cause irritation to the lining of the dog’s trachea (windpipe) and upper bronchi. The period between exposure to infection and developing symptoms (the incubation period) is often fairly long, sometimes up to 2 weeks.

The first symptom is usually a dry, harsh cough which may end in retching and will probably sound as if something is lodged in the dog’s throat. Some dogs will be very well apart from a cough, but others may develop a temperature, a runny nose, appear lethargic or go off their food. Rarely there are other symptoms such as diarrhoea or vomiting. Usually the infection is not life-threatening but it can be a nuisance, and it may take several weeks to clear up completely. As with most illnesses, it is more likely to be a problem in older dogs, especially if they have pre-existing heart or lung problems.

If the infection is very mild, treatment may not be necessary. More usually, affected dogs will need to see their vet to distinguish the condition from other types of cough (such as heart conditions, foreign bodies, bronchitis, or more rarely, lung tumours). Treatment for kennel cough might include antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. There is no specific treatment for the viruses involved, but any secondary bacterial infection would be helped by antibiotics. Responsible owners will then take steps to keep their dogs away from others to prevent spread, although there is nothing you can do to stop spread during the incubation period before you know that your dog has the infection.

It would be unfair to blame the kennels if your dog does pick this up during a stay as a boarder, as there is little the kennels can do to prevent infection spread in the air. An infected dog will have brought the infection in before its owner or the kennel owner was aware that it was infected. The risk is similar to that of catching a cold or flu from another guest while on holiday: unfortunate but not the fault of the hotel! However, it is always a good idea to inform a kennels, grooming parlour etc if your dog develops this condition after a visit.

Kennel Cough Vaccine with applicator

Kennel Cough Vaccine with applicator

There is a kennel cough vaccination which can be given to dogs, and although it cannot prevent all cases, it will reduce the likelihood and possibly the severity of cases in an outbreak. The vaccine is a small volume of liquid administered by the vet into the dog’s nostril using a syringe with a special applicator on the end. Most dogs accept this fairly easily although some do dislike having it administered. Firm but kind restraint by a veterinary nurse will usually allow the vaccination to be given without too much fuss. The first vaccines were given every six months, but more recent ones have been shown to work for twelve months so only need to be given annually. It may not be advised to give it at the same time as the routine annual injections, but your own surgery can advise you about this.

Boarding kennels will usually insist on vaccination to protect all their boarders, and it would also be advisable to have your dog vaccinated against kennel cough if you are intending to go to dog shows or if they have medical problems as mentioned above. Always check with your own veterinary surgeon, who knows your dog’s medical history, if you are not sure.

Jenny Sheriff BVM&S MRCVS

If you are worried that your dog may have kennel cough use the interactive symptom guide to find out what you should do.

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