What You Need to Know About Infectious Canine Cough, or Kennel Cough

If you’re a dog owner, you’ve almost certainly heard of kennel cough – either because you’ve had your dog vaccinated for it or because your dog has had it. Did you know, though, that kennel cough is a misnomer? In fact, kennel cough can be acquired in many other environments beyond kennels, which is why it’s better labeled infectious canine cough or tracheobronchitis. Additionally, it can be the result of a number of different airborne infectious agents. While it usually isn’t an especially serious illness, it’s safest to make sure your dog is vaccinated to prevent any potential complications.

How it’s spread:

Kennel cough is usually thought of as an infection your dog picks up in crowded kennel environments, like those found while boarding or in animal shelters. However, research shows that those types of infections only account for about 40% of all cases. About 33% of all cases originate in your dog’s local environment (walking, playing at the dog park, etc.), and the rest come from training classes, dog shows, and unknown origins. In short, your dog can catch infectious canine cough anywhere.

Healthy dogs like Abby still need to be vaccinated.

While healthy adult dogs like Abby aren’t likely to get serious cases of infectious canine cough, it’s important for her to be vaccinated. That keeps her from transmitting infection to dogs that can’t be vaccinated (too young, health problems, etc.). It also means any infection she gets will be shorter and less severe than it would have been otherwise.

Worse yet, the infection can be spread by dogs that aren’t coughing. Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear that infectious canine cough can be transmitted by the cough of an infected dog. But that isn’t the only way it can be spread. In addition, simple friendly contact and sharing of contaminated objects (like a water bowl at a dog park) can also spread infection. Moreover, since dogs can transmit the infection to other dogs for up to 3-4 months after symptoms disappear, relying solely on visible signs of illness to protect your own pets is ineffective. Basically, anywhere there are other dogs, there is the potential for exposure to infectious canine cough!

All of this would be okay, though, if there was a single infectious agent from which your dog could be protected. While the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacterium is the most common cause of infectious canine cough, it is only one of many that can cause it. Other infectious agents include canine parainfluenza virus, canine reovirus, canine herpesvirus, and many others. Additionally, most cases involve infection by both Bordetella and one of the viruses at the same time. Luckily, you can get your dog vaccinated for these! The annual Bordetella vaccine protects against the bacterial infection, and the tri-annual DHP protects against the parainfluenza virus (the most common virus found in kennel cough cases). 

Symptoms and Prognosis:

There’s a reason the Bordetella vaccine is one of the first small puppies receive. For young puppies like Tesla, infectious canine cough can be very dangerous!

Unsurprisingly the most common symptom of infectious canine cough is a persistent, forceful cough. Sometimes the cough is accompanied by retching and watery nasal and/or eye discharge. Unless your dog has a serious infection, it is unlikely that there will be any further complications and his appetite and activity level should remain normal. However, some dogs do experience complications. Young puppies and dogs with weakened or compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable, and they may progress to fever, lethargy, pneumonia, and in very serious cases, death.

Treatment for mild cases of infectious canine cough usually takes the form of supportive therapy – extra fluids, good nutrition, and rest. They may also be treated with a combination of antibiotics (if bacteria are present), anti-inflammatories and/or cough suppressants. For dogs with serious infections resulting in pneumonia, hospitalization for more aggressive treatment may be required. Additionally, if your dog stops eating or develops rapid breathing or listlessness, you should contact your veterinarian right away. In general, most dogs recover from kennel cough within 3 weeks, though older or immune-compromised dogs may take as long as 6 weeks to recover. (Don’t forget, they can shed the bacteria, spreading it to other dogs, for a good bit longer!)

Remember, the best protection is vaccination. Vaccination minimizes (but does not eliminate entirely) your dog’s risk for kennel cough and shortens the duration of infections if it is contracted. If your dog needs to be vaccinated or has developed a cough, give us a call!

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