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Kennel Cough (Bordetella)

Kennel cough is a very contagious respiratory disease that affects the upper respiratory tract of dogs, especially younger ones. It causes inflammation of the trachea and bronchi, which can lead to lung inflammation. Kennel cough usually appears in overpopulated crowded areas with a large number of dogs aggregated in one place. This disease is also called infectious tracheobronchitis or Bordetella. It can be easily treated, but complications can occur in puppies or immunocompromised dogs. In this article, you will learn about kennel cough causes, symptoms, diagnostics, treatment, vaccination, and other types of prevention.

What Is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough (infectious tracheobronchitis or Bordetella) is a highly contagious respiratory disease that usually occurs in crowded areas, such as dog shelters, dog hotels, veterinary hospitals, grooming studios, and other similar places with low hygiene standards. However, this does not mean that every dog shelter or pet hotel has unsanitary conditions.

Kennel cough is a multifactorial disease, meaning there are more pathogens included in its development. This disease is caused by viral and bacterial pathogens. The most common bacterial pathogen is Bordetella bronchiseptica, which is why the disease is sometimes referred to as Bordetella. Viral pathogens that cause kennel cough are canine respiratory coronavirus, canine distemper virus, canine parainfluenza virus and canine herpes virus.

The viruses usually attack the respiratory epithelium of the upper parts of the respiratory tract. Dogs with an injured respiratory epithelium are more predisposed to this disease than others. This kind of injury usually happens if the dog is exposed to cold air, smoke, or some toxic gas for a long period. Young dogs are also prone to this disease because their immune system is not fully developed, as are dogs that spend most of their time in unventilated, humid spaces.1Author: Blackwell W., Editors: Larry P. Tilley, DVM, Francis W. K. Smith Jr, DVM, Blackwells Five-minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline, sixth edition, 2016, title Canine infectious respiratory disease, page 212 The incubation period for this disease can last up to two weeks.

How Long Does Kennel Cough Last?

Some of the cases can pass without symptoms, at least not visible to the owners. Usually, kennel cough, if treated, lasts from one to three weeks. In some cases, symptoms can last longer than three weeks.

Kennel Cough Symptoms

This disease can be subclinical (without visible symptoms), mild, or severe (which usually leads to pneumonia).

In some cases, kennel cough can pass without anyone knowing that the dog had the disease because no symptoms were present. But usually, at the beginning of the disease, some mild symptoms can be noticed, such as loss of appetite, depression, mouth and nasal discharge, high body temperature, sneezing, and mild cough. As the disease progresses, the symptoms become more visible and more serious. Coughing gets more intense and severe, and body temperature remains constantly high. During the cough, mouth and nasal discharge can be present, but in some cases, the cough can be dry.

Dogs affected with kennel cough have difficulty breathing. Owners can sometimes notice that their dog is struggling to breathe. Since the disease affects the trachea, the infected dogs produce various sounds while breathing that sometimes can be worrisome, as it sounds like the dog is choking or suffocating.

With the auscultation of the trachea, the veterinarian can detect if there are abnormal breathing sounds that would indicate the presence of inflammation. Usually, with the auscultation of the lungs, the abnormal sound cannot be heard, because the process has not reached the lungs. Simply put, abnormal sounds are present in the case of pneumonia if the disease has affected the lungs.

Kennel Cough Sound

The characteristic of this disease is a strong, frequent, and hacking cough, which can sometimes be so strong that it can lead to a short apnea (breathing pause) or choking, gagging, and suffocation sensations. The respiration is difficult, the dog gasps for air, and breathing can sound like howling wind because the airways are narrowed. Since mucus is present, different crackling sounds can also be heard.2https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/kennel-cough

Kennel Cough Diagnosis

Usually veterinarians perform an auscultation (listening to the internal sounds of the body, usually using a stethoscope) to see if there are any changes in the respiratory tract, during which they may notice abnormal sounds that can indicate some inflammation and therefore possible kennel cough. In some cases, the disease can spread from the trachea to the lungs, so the veterinarian will examine both the trachea and the lungs.

Veterinarians can also run some additional tests, such as a blood test, pulse oximetry, and arterial blood analysis. If the blood test shows the dog has leukopenia, it suggests the disease is caused by one of the viruses mentioned in the section “What Is Kennel Cough?“. Pulse oximetry and arterial blood gas analysis can show if the dog has a lack of oxygen or low level of oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia), which can indicate that pneumonia is present.

Kennel Cough Treatment and Prevention

Depending on the seriousness of the disease, dogs can be hospitalized. Hospitalization is required in severe cases, while in mild cases, the owners have to take their dogs every day to the veterinarian clinic for therapy.

During treatment, fluid therapy should be applied to avoid dehydration and to keep electrolytes at a normal level. Besides fluids, antibiotics are needed, especially when the cause of the infection is the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica. Veterinarians also prescribe antibiotics, even if kennel cough is caused by a virus. Antibiotics are applied for the prevention of secondary infections since dogs become weak and their immune system becomes compromised due to disease.

Affected dogs should rest during therapy, especially in severe cases. This means that owners will have to shorten walks and restrict any unnecessary movements. Any possible contact with other dogs or animals should be avoided. If the owner has more than one dog, they should be physically separated, so the healthy dog does not get infected. The house should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected as much as possible. Chlorhexidine is the preferred disinfectant because of its antiviral effects.

To avoid kennel cough and other contagious diseases, owners should take their dogs to places with high sanitary standards (hotels, groomers, etc.) and avoid crowded parks during regular walks, or at least minimize contact with other dogs.

If a dog has kennel cough, it is good to keep his area ventilated at all times and to avoid cigarette smoke. It is also advisable to use a harness instead of a collar because a collar adds extra pressure on the neck area and airways.

Kennel Cough (Bordetella) Vaccine

When it comes to the prevention of kennel cough vaccinating your dog is the best option, but owners can sometimes be confused about the whole conception of this vaccine. Owners usually think that dogs that are vaccinated against Bordetella bronchiseptica can’t get kennel cough anymore. The reason for this misconception is they don’t know kennel cough can be caused by multiple agents—viral and bacterial. So, there are two types of vaccines that are used in the prevention of kennel cough: viral and bacterial vaccines.

Vaccines against canine distemper (CDV) and canine adenovirus type (CAV-2) provide reliable protection in puppies, and these are administered when puppies are 6 weeks old. This vaccine is called DHLPP, and it also protects against leptospirosis, parvovirus, and canine parainfluenza virus.

There is also a Bordetella vaccine that can be applied to puppies 2-4 weeks of age intranasally. Revaccination is annual.

Another way is parenteral vaccination (subcutaneously) to puppies 6-8 weeks old, administered twice in two doses. The first vaccine is recommended when the dog is around two months old, with follow-up revaccination at 4 months of age.3Author: Blackwell W., Editors: Larry P. Tilley, DVM, Francis W. K. Smith Jr, DVM, Blackwells five-minute veterinary consult canine and feline, sixth edition, 2016, title Canine infectious respiratory disease, page 213

It is important that dogs are vaccinated, especially if they visit daycares, boarding facilities, training classes, competitions, etc. This minimizes the risk of the dog getting kennel cough; vaccination is usually required for entry into these kinds of facilities or events.

The vaccines used in the prevention of kennel cough are tested and considered safe in most cases, but sometimes contraindications such as lethargy, fever, and allergy can occur, depending on the health condition of the dog.4https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/facts-bordetella-vaccine-dogs/

Kennel Cough Medicine

Veterinarians use several different drugs to alleviate symptoms of kennel cough, such as coughing, heavy breathing, etc. To suppress dry cough, veterinarians prescribe cough suppressants, such as Butorphanol or Hydrocodone Bitartrate, which are shown to be effective. Bronchodilators like terbutaline are also used. These medications help to relax and open the airways by controlling bronchospasms.5Author: Blackwell W., Editors: Larry P. Tilley, DVM, Francis W. K. Smith Jr, DVM, Blackwells five-minute veterinary consult canine and feline, sixth edition, 2016, title Canine infectious respiratory disease, page 213

Dog owners should not give any medication to dogs without consulting a veterinarian first.

Kennel Cough Antibiotics

Antibiotics are an important part of the therapy of kennel cough. Although they are ineffective against the virus, veterinarians include antibiotics in therapy because they help to fight the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica (one of the causes of this disease) and to prevent secondary bacterial infections. Since Bordetella is quite a resistant bacterium, it is important to choose the right antibiotic.

Antibiotics of choice when it comes to kennel cough include the following:

  • Amoxicillin/clavulanic acid
  • Doxycycline
  • Penicillin
  • Enrofloxacin
  • Gentamicin6Author: Blackwell W., Editors: Larry P. Tilley, DVM, Francis W. K. Smith Jr, DVM, Blackwells five-minute veterinary consult canine and feline, sixth edition, 2016, title Canine infectious respiratory disease, page 213

Owners should not give any medication to dogs without consulting with a veterinarian.

Home Remedies for Kennel Cough

Some dog owners give honey, eucalyptus, and similar things to their dogs with the goal to alleviate coughing. This should definitely be avoided because they usually do more harm than good. It is best to not give anything to a dog without first consulting with a veterinarian if your dog has kennel cough symptoms.

Kennel Cough in Puppies

Puppies are more susceptible to this disease than older dogs, especially those younger than two months. Their immune system is weaker than in older dogs, and they are not able to get vaccinated before two months of age.

Symptoms of kennel cough in puppies are more severe, and the disease can easily progress from tracheobronchitis to pneumonia, which can be life-threatening, especially for puppies. Some of the symptoms that occur are strong coughing, high body temperature, loss of appetite, nasal discharge, and sneezing. When it comes to the treatment of kennel cough in puppies, it should be approached seriously and owners must react fast and contact the veterinarian as soon as they notice the first symptoms. The veterinarian will decide the best therapy for the affected dog.

Is Kennel Cough Contagious to Humans?

Humans can get kennel cough, but it is not a usual occurrence. There are few recorded cases of people getting Bordetella infection from their dogs. This can happen to humans whose immune system is compromised, for example, if they have underlying medical conditions, such as HIV, lung cancer, and similar diseases. Some of the symptoms that can occur in humans include a strong and persistent cough, sore throat, fever, and other respiratory symptoms like sneezing and nasal discharge. In the treatment of kennel cough in humans, antibiotics and cough suppressants are used.7https://www.healthline.com/health/is-kennel-cough-contagious-to-humans#treatment

Conclusion

Kennel cough, also called infectious tracheobronchitis and Bordetella, is a highly contagious disease, caused by viruses and bacteria. Viruses that can cause this disease are canine distemper virus, canine herpes virus, and canine respiratory coronavirus. Bordetella bronchiseptica is a bacterial causative agent, so the disease is sometimes referred to as Bordetella. Kennel cough usually occurs in places with low hygiene standards and crowded places, such as dog daycares, kennels, dog shelters, grooming studios, dog hotels, and even in some veterinary hospitals.

The disease affects the upper parts of the respiratory tract (trachea), but in severe cases, the lungs can become affected too (pneumonia). Puppies and dogs with respiratory problems are more prone to this disease because their immune system is not developed enough. Puppies can’t be vaccinated until they reach the age of 6 to 8 weeks, which makes them more susceptible to this disease. Death from pneumonia caused by kennel cough is not a rare occurrence in puppies.

The symptoms of the disease may occur in a milder or more severe form, while there are also cases when the disease passes without any symptoms. The main symptoms of kennel cough are difficulty breathing and cough, during which they can produce different kinds of sounds that can sound worrisome to owners because sometimes it seems like the dog is choking. Coughing has a strong hacking sound, which sometimes can be so intense that it leads to short apnea (breathing pause).

The veterinarian can diagnose kennel cough based on the symptoms and with the help of auscultation (listening to the internal sounds of the body) and additional laboratory tests. It is important that owners give thorough medical history (anamnesis), without leaving out any part of it.

For the treatment of kennel cough, veterinarians usually give fluid therapy and antibiotics to dogs. Antibiotics are often additionally used to prevent any secondary infections and against Bordetella bronchiseptica itself. Also, veterinarians give other drugs to alleviate symptoms (coughing) and bronchodilators to reduce bronchospasms. The treatment usually lasts for two weeks.

When it comes to prevention, vaccination has shown great results, but it is important that owners know that the Bordetella vaccine can’t protect their dog from other causative agents. Dogs should be vaccinated with the DHLPP vaccine at the age of 2 months. The follow-up revaccination is three weeks after the initial vaccine.

Protection against another causative agent of kennel cough, bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, is not included in this vaccine; it needs to be administered separately (2-3 weeks of age, annual revaccination). Dog owners should have educational conversations with their veterinarian about the vaccination. For more information about the vaccination, see the section “Kennel Cough (Bordetella) Vaccine.”

Alleviating the symptoms of kennel cough by giving dogs home remedies, such as honey and eucalyptus, is not advisable. Do not use anything without consulting the veterinarian first.

To prevent the spread of kennel cough between dogs, it is important to keep the good hygiene of the place where the infected dog resides. This means regular cleaning with detergent and disinfectants. Chlorhexidine is a good choice of disinfectant because of its antiviral properties. People who have more than one dog should separate the infected dog so he doesn’t infect the others.

Humans can get Bordetella bronchiseptica from their dogs, but it is a very rare occurrence. It happens in people with some underlying medical conditions, while healthy people are not at risk of getting this disease.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Kennel Cough

How Do Dogs Get Kennel Cough?

In most cases, dogs get kennel cough after close contact with other infected dogs. This usually happens in crowded areas, where the hygiene levels are low.

How Long Is Kennel Cough Contagious?

Kennel cough is transmitted by coughing (discharge, droplets), so as long as symptoms are present, it can be transmitted to other dogs. Also, it can be transmitted through food and water bowls or some other items. Kennel cough is contagious for approximately one to three weeks.

How to Treat Kennel Cough?

When owners notice some symptoms that might lead to kennel cough, they should not hesitate to pay a visit to the veterinarian. The veterinarian will apply proper medication after the diagnosis is established. Owners should not treat the dog on their own. For more information on what the treatment looks like, see “Kennel Cough Treatment and Prevention.”

What Does Kennel Cough Sound Like?

Coughing in this disease has a strong, hacking sound. Because of the mucus, owners can hear different crackling sounds during coughing and breathing. Short apnea (breathing pause) is not a rare occurrence. Due to narrowed airways, an abnormal sound can be noticed which reminds of howling wind.

Can Cats Get Kennel Cough?

Cats are more resistant to Bordetella bronchiseptica, but they can also get infected. This can happen after close contact with a dog that has Bordetella. The main symptoms in cats are coughing, sneezing, and difficulty breathing.

Can Kennel Cough Kill a Dog?

Dogs with kennel cough respond well to treatment. Although, if the case is severe and if the dog gets pneumonia (especially a puppy), death is not an unusual outcome of the disease.

References

References
1 Author: Blackwell W., Editors: Larry P. Tilley, DVM, Francis W. K. Smith Jr, DVM, Blackwells Five-minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline, sixth edition, 2016, title Canine infectious respiratory disease, page 212
2 https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/kennel-cough
3, 5, 6 Author: Blackwell W., Editors: Larry P. Tilley, DVM, Francis W. K. Smith Jr, DVM, Blackwells five-minute veterinary consult canine and feline, sixth edition, 2016, title Canine infectious respiratory disease, page 213
4 https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/facts-bordetella-vaccine-dogs/
7 https://www.healthline.com/health/is-kennel-cough-contagious-to-humans#treatment
Dr. Benjamin Razic (DVM)
Dr. Benjamin is a young, ambitious veterinarian, working in a busy regional vet station in Travnik. He is interested in animal virology and is locally engaged in animal rights. Benjamin also has a certificate in surgical support, anesthesia monitoring, canine welfare, and hospitalization. He has a mixed-breed dog he has found on the streets.

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