Kennel Cough in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatments

We have all heard of kennel cough, but what is it, how can it be prevented and how is it treated?

Created: 23/08/2021 Updated: 24/08/2021 - Vicky Payne

dogs, health, Health & Wellbeing, puppy, senior

There have been warnings from vets across the UK that cases of Kennel Cough are on the rise. This article explains what Kennel Cough is, how it is diagnosed and treated, and how it can be avoided.

What is kennel cough?

The proper term for Kennel Cough is Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC), but in this article we will use Kennel Cough as this is the term most pet owners, vets, and animal care professionals will use.

Kennel Cough is used as a name for a variety of bacterial and viral infections which cause infectious respiratory disease in dogs. The most common symptom is a dry cough, often described as a hacking cough.

Causes of Kennel Cough include the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, and the viruses canine parainfluenza virus and canine adenovirus type 2.

Research is now finding that other common viruses and bacteria may also be involved in Kennel Cough. It is possible for a dog to be infected with more than one agent at a time.

Where can your dog pick up kennel cough?

Despite its common name, Kennel Cough can be contracted wherever dogs meet. Dogs that attend training classes (especially indoors), grooming salons, doggy day-care, and the vets, as well as boarding kennels are at risk. Kennel Cough can also be caught on group dog walks, from public areas popular with dog owners, and may even be transferred by a human from one dog to another.

Most of the agents responsible for Kennel Cough in dogs are spread through droplets in the air and will survive on surfaces for a short time. Survival is longer in mild, damp weather so cases often rise in the Spring and Autumn. Vets also see a rise during the Christmas and Summer Holidays as dogs travel around the country, suggesting that dogs can build up an immunity to their local risks.

As different infectious agents can be involved there can be a range of incubation periods (the time taken from contracting the bacteria or virus to developing symptoms), symptoms, duration of illness, and length of shedding the infection.

Tri-colour long hair border collie dog in the foreground with other dogs playing in the background at doggy daycare

Symptoms

The most common symptom in Kennel Cough is a dry, hacking cough. Dogs can appear as though they are trying to dislodge something from their throats and may even be sick from the exertion of coughing. Discharge from the nose and eyes, and sneezing can be seen in some cases.

Lethargy, a raised temperature, decreased appetite, and a productive cough are more likely to be seen if the infection affects the lower respiratory tract (lungs).

Possible complications

Most cases of Kennel Cough are mild and limited to infection of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat), and though it can be distressing for dogs and owners, symptoms resolve in 1—2 weeks with supportive treatment.

Kennel Cough can be more dangerous in breeding bitches, puppies, elderly dogs, dogs with weakened immune systems, and dogs with pre-existing lung conditions. In a few cases Kennel Cough can lead to life threatening pneumonia.

Dogs who are under stress are at higher risk of catching a respiratory infection, which may explain why outbreaks are common in rescue kennels. Other factors which may increase a dogs’ risk include being in a house with smokers or walking where there are high levels of air pollution.

Worried looking older dog being checked over by a vet wearing blue gloves

Taking a dog with Kennel Cough to the vets

It is not always necessary to take a coughing dog to the vets. Dogs who are bright, eating well, and not overly bothered by their coughing can be cared for at home. Soft food, a warm environment, and staying at home will usually lead to a full recovery in 1-2 weeks.

Dogs who are coughing frequently, making themselves sick, are lethargic or off their food, as well as dogs that cough for more than 2 weeks, should be seen by a vet. Tell the receptionist that your dog is coughing, as the vet may want you to stay outside until your appointment to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to other pets in the waiting room.

The vet will take a full history and may ask questions about where you dog walks, and whether they have visited any higher risk places such as dog parks, groomers, day-care, or kennels in the last two weeks. Examination can include looking at the back of the throat to see if there is inflammation of the tonsils, palpation of the lymph nodes in the neck, and gentle squeezing of the trachea (throat) which often causes the classic hacking cough. The vet will listen to the heart and lungs using a stethoscope and may take your dog’s temperature.

Golden retriever puppy being checked over by a vet with a stethoscope

Treatment

Mild cases of Kennel Cough will usually be treated with anti-inflammatories, which reduce fevers and the pain from an irritated and inflamed throat. Honey can be used to soothe the throat, but medicines to reduce coughing are only used in more severe cases. Antibiotics should only be given where the symptoms persist and suggest a bacterial infection, or where a dog is at high risk of complications.

Persistent cases may require additional investigation such as blood tests, radiographs (x-rays) of the chest, and bronchoalveolar lavage (lung wash) to diagnose the cause of the infection, to rule out other causes of coughing such as heart disease or lungworm, and to select an appropriate antibiotic.

Caring for a dog with Kennel Cough

Caring for a dog with Kennel Cough is similar to caring for a person with a cold or the flu. Affected dogs should rest as exercise can make coughing worse, and they should not be taken out in public places. If your dog must be taken outside on a lead use a harness which doesn’t pull on their neck and throat.

The room where your dog rests should be warm (but not dry) and should be well ventilated (but not draughty). Some dogs appreciate time in a steamy room such as the bathroom. Alternatively, you can place a wet towel by a radiator to raise the humidity in the room.

It is generally accepted that dogs with Kennel Cough should not socialise with other dogs for two weeks after they stop coughing. However, some dogs may shed Bordetella for more than a month after they recover, and if Herpesvirus was involved dogs can shed this intermittently throughout their lives. The long incubation period (up to two weeks), large number of infectious agents involved, and variable shedding times mean that Kennel Cough is always likely to be a risk to dogs.

Adult dog with red harness and a beige lead, ready to leave the house.

Preventing kennel cough

Vaccination can reduce the risk of a dog contracting Kennel Cough and reduce the severity of illness if a dog does catch it. Kennel Cough vaccinations are given every 6—12 months and protect against Bordetella and Parainfluenza. Adenovirus and Distemper, which can also cause respiratory illness in dogs are covered by the ‘DHP’ vaccine, which is usually given to puppies and repeated every 3 years.

Kennel Cough vaccine has traditionally been given as a drop into one or both nostrils. These are live vaccines and can cause mild symptoms (usually a runny nose) in some dogs. Dogs vaccinated with live intranasal Kennel Cough vaccines should not be in contact with immunocompromised people for 6 weeks after vaccination. Protection against Bordetella starts in as little as 3 days, but parainfluenza protection takes up to 3 weeks to develop.

Recently, an injectable vaccine against Bordetella has been launched that may be more suitable for dogs living with immunocompromised people. Two injections are given 4 weeks apart, followed by a booster after 7 months, and then every 12 months. Protection starts in around 2 weeks.

Dogs who are incubating Kennel Cough at the time of vaccination will not be prevented from developing symptoms.

Most boarding kennels and doggy-day-care centres will ask for proof of Kennel Cough vaccination and will want this done at least three weeks before your dog attends. Groomers, training classes, and dog walkers may also ask for dogs to be vaccinated. Breeding bitches should be up to date with Kennel Cough vaccination before mating.

Springer spaniel dog outside looking up towards the camera

Can humans get kennel cough?

Bordetella bronchiseptica very rarely causes disease in humans, despite our close contact with dogs. Bordetella can cause severe illness in people with extremely compromised immune systems. If a member of the family, especially someone who is vulnerable to infections, develops a cough after your dog catches Kennel Cough or is vaccinated against Kennel Cough seek medical advice.

In rare cases cats can become infected with Bordetella, with similar mild symptoms to dogs including sneezing, coughing, nose and eye discharge, and a fever. Again, kittens and old cats are at risk of developing pneumonia. A nasal drop vaccine is available for cats, but is not recommended for most pets.

Can a dog catch kennel cough multiple times?

Because there are multiple different infectious agents which can cause Kennel Cough it is possible for a dog to catch different things and develop a cough multiple times. Dogs will develop short term immunity to the bacteria or virus that cause the cough: for Bordetella infections this protection typically lasts 6—12 months.

Adult dog next to their owner who is wearing a brightly coloured jumper and is holding a tabby cat.

A summary on kennel cough in dogs

  • Kennel Cough is properly described as Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex as it is a collection of symptoms with a range of possible bacterial and viral causes.

  • Despite its common name Kennel Cough can be caught by any dog which mixes with other dogs or frequents public places where other dogs go.

  • Kennel Cough usually causes mild, but self-limiting illness.

  • Treatment is normally supportive care and vet prescribed anti-inflammatories. Antibiotics should be reserved for severe cases or immunocompromised pets.

  • The risk of Kennel Cough and the severity of symptoms can be reduced by giving a vaccination every 12 months.

Do you need further advice?

If you need any further advice, please contact the OSCAR Helpline Team on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email helpline@oscars.co.uk.