You hear a honking sound and your first thought is “Has a goose taken over my living room?” Then you realize it’s your dog. He has a honking cough that doesn’t want to stop, and when it does, he starts to gag like he’s choking on something. He finally stops, but the episode concerns you, so it’s off to the vet clinic. While there, you discover he has kennel cough. You think, “My dog hasn’t been to the kennel. What’s going on?”
Kennel cough, also known as infectious tracheobronchitis (ITB), is a respiratory illness that can be caused by a virus or a bacteria. During this infection, the windpipe (or trachea) becomes inflamed and irritated. Fluid or mucous can fill the airways. The illness is highly contagious and is passed through the air from one infected pet to another. It can also be transmitted by pets coming in contact with contaminated surfaces, such as toys, bedding, or water bowls. Numerous viruses can cause kennel cough, but the most common are parainfluenza virus and adenovirus. The most common bacterial cause is Bordetella bronchiseptica.
The kennel cough name comes from the fact that the illness is easily transmitted in places where dogs are housed in close proximity, such as at boarding kennels or animal shelters. However, it only takes contact with one infected dog for your pet to get sick. It can be at a dog park, a friend or neighbor’s house, a training class, or the groomer.
After your dog comes in contact with an infected pet or a contaminated object, it can take between 3 to 14 days to start showing symptoms. A loud, honking cough is the most characteristic symptom of the illness. Your dog may cough 10-20 times in a row lasting over several minutes. The coughing may be triggered by exercise or play. It may be worsened by cigarette smoke or by straining against a collar. After the coughing, he may start to gag and bring up a white, foamy mucous. Other possible symptoms include fever, conjunctivitis (red, irritated eyes), nasal discharge (runny nose), or sneezing.
For many pets, this illness is self limiting, just like the common cold in humans. However, this is not always the case. In certain pets, the illness can progress to a life-threatening pneumonia. This is especially true for puppies, pets with compromised immune systems, pets with chronic illnesses, pets with pre-existing lung disease, unvaccinated pets, and elderly pets. In the case of pneumonia, additional symptoms will occur such as difficulty breathing, lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, and possibly depression.
Since coughing may occur with many illnesses, your veterinarian will perform a complete medical history and physical examination when you bring your pet in to be evaluated. Depending upon that evaluation, other tests may be necessary. If pneumonia is suspected, a chest x-ray will be taken. Also, when symptoms are severe, or if the pet has been unable to eat or drink, a complete blood count and/or blood chemistry panel may be necessary to check on electrolyte levels, sugar, and kidney function. Since intestinal parasites can migrate to the lungs and cause cough and breathing issues, tests for intestinal parasites may also be performed.
The goal of treatment of kennel cough is to support the pet until they recover from their illness. In uncomplicated cases where the infection is self limited, this may mean keeping your pet comfortable by (1) avoiding play and exercise which worsens the cough, (2) making sure they are eating and drinking, (3) exchanging their collar for a harness while they are ill, (4) avoiding irritating fumes or smoke from fires or cigarettes (5) using steam from the shower in the bathroom or a vaporizer to make it easier for mucous to be cleared from the airways.
In complicated cases where pneumonia is suspected or with high risk pets, additional treatment may be needed. (1) Fluids and electrolytes may be given if the pet has become dehydrated or has been vomiting because of the coughing. (2) Antibiotics may be needed if a bacterial infection is suspected, such as with Bordetella. (3) A cough suppressant may be given to keep the pet more comfortable.
In all cases, your dog should be isolated from other pets for at least a week to avoid spreading the illness. Over a three week period, the cough will decline and resolve. In complicated cases, the recovery period will be longer. This is especially true for puppies, elderly pets, pets with chronic illnesses, and immunocompromised pets.
To prevent the risk of developing kennel cough, it is important to vaccinate your pet for parainfluenza and Bordetella. No vaccine is 100% effective, but getting vaccinated decreases the risk. Also, vaccination stimulates an immune response, so if your pet gets ill, the illness should be less severe and less likely to develop into pneumonia. Since kennel cough is highly contagious, most boarding facilities will require pets to be recently vaccinated for Bordetella and parainfluenza before staying at their facility. Remember for the vaccine to be helpful, the pet should be vaccinated at least 5 days prior to the time of boarding. Discuss with your veterinarian when to vaccinate your pet and how often.
Kennel cough is frequently a self limited illness; however, in certain cases, a life threatening pneumonia can occur. Consult your veterinarian if your pet develops a cough, so a thorough evaluation can be made, and treatment can be started if needed. To protect your pet, discuss your vaccination options with your veterinarian.
1. “Kennel Cough.” AVMA Podcast. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. .
2. “Kennel Cough.” ASPCA. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. .
3. “Infectious Tracheobronchitis (Kennel Cough) in Dogs.” Infectious Tracheobronchitis (Kennel Cough). Web. 22 Mar. 2015. .