Kennel Cough in Dogs: Causes, Facts, and My Experience

Updated on December 2, 2017
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Linda Crampton is a biology teacher, writer, and long-time pet owner. She currently has dogs, cats, and birds in her family.

Misha, my Labrador Retriever
Misha, my Labrador Retriever | Source

Kennel Cough or Canine Infectious Tracheobronchitis

Kennel cough is an unpleasant and very infectious disease in dogs which periodically occurs in outbreaks. The main symptom of the disease is a hacking cough. It’s generally not a serious illness but occasionally leads to pneumonia. This article was prompted not only by my interest in the biological basis of the illness, but also by the fact that my dog recently experienced kennel cough. Misha had a severe case of the disease which was very tiring for him when it was at its worst.

Kennel cough is also known as canine infectious tracheobronchitis or as Bordetella, after the bacterium that is a common cause of the disease. An outbreak may develop after dogs have been in a crowded or stressful situation, such as in a dog daycare facility, a kennel, or a shelter. Poor ventilation increases the risk of infection in a crowded area. Chronic stress can compromise a dog's immune system.

The disease is also transmitted in places that aren't crowded and in situations that aren't stressful. Only a single infected dog is needed to spread the illness. Misha interacts with other dogs that we meet on walks and with his canine companion at home, but he hasn’t been present in a crowd of dogs for a long time.

Any dog with a persistent or recurring cough needs to be checked by a veterinarian. A cough is a common symptom in many diseases.

Another photo of Misha
Another photo of Misha | Source

Possible Symptoms of Kennel Cough

Symptoms of kennel cough don't appear immediately after transmission of the causal agent. The incubation period for the disease is said to be three to ten days, or possibly as long as two weeks in some cases.

Misha's symptoms flared up quite suddenly. He had an occasional cough before this time, but it was so uncommon that I didn't think anything of it. In hindsight, I realize that it may have been the first stage of his illness.

Misha eventually developed the typical symptoms of the disease. His frequent coughs were strong enough to produce gagging and at one stage the release of fluid from his mouth. On one occasion he threw up a small amount of the food that he had eaten as he coughed. Apart from the coughing and the problems that it caused, however, he seemed to feel fine. Vets say that this is generally the case for dogs with kennel cough.

Misha's appetite remained excellent during his illness and he was interested in things happening around him, as always. He even continued to "smile"—a term I use for the happy expression and wagging tail that I often see as I speak to him and stroke him. The smiling stopped when a coughing fit developed, though, as it frequently did when the disease was at its worst. The coughs were obviously very unpleasant.

Misha's coughs were more common when he was active. During this time, the coughs occurred for long periods and as often as every few seconds. In contrast, they occurred for short periods and were less frequent when he was lying down. Misha coughed during the night as well as the day, which interrupted his sleep (and mine). He was noticeably sleepier than usual during the day.

Some dogs develop additional symptoms of the disease, including sneezing and a runny nose. Some develop a fever or mild loss of appetite. Misha didn't experience any of these symptoms, however.

The video below gives a good approximation of the hacking sound and gagging behaviour that Misha exhibited. The narrator is a vet. It's probably a wise idea to check with your own vet about the advisability of giving your dog the human medicine mentioned at the end of the video, though. You should also ask the vet about the correct dose for your dog.

A Demonstration of the Main Symptom

Diagnosis

Misha's vet said that kennel cough is often not treated and the dog's immune system is left to cure the disease on its own (although he did decide to treat Misha). Other references agree that the disease is frequently left untreated. It's very important that a dog with a persistent cough is checked by a vet, however, because the condition may not be kennel cough. This is important even if the dog has been in a situation where an outbreak of the disease has developed. Assuming that a sick pet has developed kennel cough during the outbreak and that no treatment is needed could be dangerous for the pet. Even if your dog is behaving like the ones in the video above or below, you shouldn't make assumptions about the cause.

Pneumonia, influenza, and heart disease are examples of diseases that can cause recurring coughs in dogs. Misha's vet checked his lungs and heart very carefully before making a diagnosis of kennel cough. After listening to my description of the situation and hearing Misha cough repeatedly during the visit, the vet diagnosed a severe case of the disease and prescribed antibiotic tablets for him.

Kennel cough is so infectious that a special procedure had to be used for me to see the vet. Instead of entering the clinic and sitting in the waiting room with Misha, I had to wait in the car in case he had kennel cough (after telling the receptionist that I was there). The vet came to get me when he was ready so that I could take Misha straight into the consulting room. After the consultation, I took Misha straight back to the car and then returned to the clinic to pay and to pick up his antibiotic.

Another Dog With Kennel Cough

Sources either say that humans can't get kennel cough or that the disease is very rare in humans. Some say that it only appears in people whose immune system has been compromised, such as those infected by the HIV virus. Cats can get the disease, although they experience it much less frequently than dogs.

Bordetella and Other Causes of Kennel Cough

Bordetella bronchiseptica is a common cause of kennel cough. It's a close relative of Bordetella pertussis, which causes whooping cough in humans. B. bronchiseptica has a rod-shaped cell, as shown below. The cells are airborne but can also be transmitted via objects, such as contaminated water bowls, food bowls, and dog toys.

The bacterium affects the trachea (windpipe) and upper bronchi of a dog. The trachea leads to two large tubes, or bronchi, one going to each lung. The trachea and the bronchi of an infected dog are irritated by the presence of the bacterial cells and become inflamed. Inflammation involves increased blood flow, redness, swelling, and discomfort or pain.

Certain viruses can also cause kennel cough. Researchers say that the cause of the illness is often a mixture of Bordetella and other organisms. The other organisms may include the parainfluenza virus, canine adenovirus type 2 (CAV-2), and a bacterium named Mycoplasma. Mycoplasma is an unusual bacterium because it lacks a cell wall. The listed organisms can also cause kennel cough on their own. Other microorganisms are also thought to contribute to or cause kennel cough.

Bordetella bronchiseptica
Bordetella bronchiseptica | Source

Possible Treatments

Antibiotics work against bacteria but not viruses. Without a lab test—which Misha didn't receive—the causative agent of a particular case of kennel cough isn't known. The lack of a lab test to diagnose kennel cough seems to be common, however.

Even though kennel cough may be caused by a virus, antibiotics are sometimes prescribed to attack not only the possible bacterial cause of the disease but also any secondary bacterial infections that develop. A "secondary" bacterial infection is one that develops after the body is in a weakened state due to the effects of an organism such as a virus. The immune system may be less successful in attacking a new invader in this situation.

Misha's medication—Clavaseptin—contained amoxillan and clavulanic acid. Amoxillan is an antibiotic. Clavulanic acid is not an antibiotic, but it improves the function of amoxillan. Some bacteria secrete enzymes known as beta-lactamases. These destroy the structure and activity of some important antibiotics, including amoxillan. Clavulanic acid breaks up beta-lactamases so that they can't inhibit the antibiotics. A combination of amoxillan and clavulanic acid is also used as a human medication. Clavaseptin is prepared for veterinary use, however.

A vet will probably have some suggestions to make an infected dog feel more comfortable and to assist their recovery, especially if antibiotics aren't prescribed. It's important to make a note of these suggestions once kennel cough has been diagnosed. The vet may recommend the use of a humidifier or vaporizer and a safe cough suppressant, for example. He or she may also suggest that the dog avoids smoke-filled environments and stress.

Vets often say that if an infected dog leaves the home he or she should wear a harness instead of a collar. The pressure of the collar on the throat—especially if the dog pulls on the leash—can cause further tissue irritation and increase pain

According to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), improvement in a dog's condition should be noted about a week after diagnosis. If the dog doesn't get better or gets worse, a second vet visit should be made. The condition can sometimes lead to pneumonia if it doesn't improve.

Precautions to Prevent the Spread of Disease

If an infected dog does leave the home, he or she should have no contact with other dogs. If another dog is seen during a walk, the owner of the sick animal should change their route to avoid meeting the dog. Off-leash areas should be avoided, since other dogs may rush to greet the infected animal. It's important to avoid crowded areas like dog parks as well as areas that many animals visit, such as pet stores and grooming salons.

Despite the recommendations listed above, it's probably not a good idea to take a dog with a bad cough beyond their home and garden except in an emergency. I don't think Misha would have wanted to go for a walk when his cough was bad.

It's important that an infected dog doesn't share his or her toys, food bowls, or drinking bowls with an uninfected animal. In addition, an infected dog mustn't drink out of a dog water bowl in parks or other areas. Contaminated saliva can spread the disease.

The recommended length of the isolation period for a sick dog varies. The most common suggestion is that owners should take steps to prevent the spread of infection for one to two weeks after the symptoms have gone. The bacteria and viruses that cause the disease remain in the body for some time after the symptoms have disappeared.

There is at least one more thing to think about with respect to stopping the spread of the infection. When one dog in a multi-dog family has kennel cough, the other animal or animals in the family may be carrying the causal agent even if they're not sick. My family followed the isolation rules for both Misha and Dylan, the other dog in our home.

Misha is in the background and Ryan is in front of him.
Misha is in the background and Ryan is in front of him. | Source

Vaccination

Misha received a kennel cough vaccination seven months before his illness developed and wasn't due to get his next shot for another five months, as I realized when I got the receipt for his treatment. The receipts include a health check and vaccination reminder. Obviously the vaccination wasn't effective in Misha's case, or at least not completely effective, assuming Bordetella was at least one cause of his illness.

The Veterinary Health Center at Kansas State University has a webpage about dog vaccinations (referenced below) which gives two possible reasons for the failure of Misha's vaccination. One of the reasons given is that some vaccines—including the Bordetella one—may only minimize a disease instead of preventing it. The page also states that although non-core vaccines are generally given once a year, "the interval may be shorter for some vaccines (i.e. Bordetella) due to increased exposure risk and the possibility of protection not lasting a full year." I'll discuss the situation with my vet when it's time for Misha to receive his core vaccination next year. He's nine at the moment but will be ten when his vaccinations are due. I want to keep him healthy.

The Bordetella vaccine doesn't provide protection from viruses. However, Misha receives an annual DAPP vaccination (Distemper, Adenovirus, Parainfluenza, and Parvovirus), which should protect him from the most common and serious canine viruses. It's possible that his illness was caused primarily by a microbe—or a particular strain of a microbe—not covered by the vaccines that he received, though.

Kennel cough is a very noticeable condition but is usually a relatively minor disorder. It's important to note that it does have the potential to turn into something more serious, especially in some dogs, as shown in the video below.

Kennel Cough Pneumonia in a Puppy

Young puppies, elderly dogs and other immunocompromised animals may take up to six weeks or more to recover.

— ASPCA

How Long Does Kennel Cough Last?

The length of a kennel cough infection seems to vary. The ASPCA says that the disease lasts for about three weeks, although there are exceptions, as mentioned in the quote above. The dog may remain infectious for days or even weeks after their symptoms have disappeared.

When I wrote the first edition of this article, Misha hadn’t fully recovered from kennel cough. He was much better than he was at his worst point, though. About four days after we saw the vet, Misha's symptoms started to weaken. His coughs gradually became less frequent and less severe. He has now stopped coughing.

It took fourteen days for Misha's cough to completely disappear, starting from the time of the flare-up in his symptoms. As I say above, though, he may have had a mild version of the illness before the flare-up and before I realized that he needed to see a vet.

Since Misha's recovery from kennel cough is very recent, I'm watching for any signs of the disease in Dylan (who is three years old) and in my three cats. It's hard to imagine that they haven't been exposed to the causal agent, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll get sick. Dylan has given a few suspicious coughs, but his condition hasn't progressed any further. Hopefully, everyone will stay healthy.

References

Information about kennel cough from PetMD

Common dog diseases (including facts about kennel cough) from the ASPCA

Facts about Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC or kennel cough) from the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis

Canine adenovirus type-2 and kennel cough facts from Vetstreet

Information about an amoxillan and clavulanic acid combination from the U.S. National Library of Medicine

Facts about dog vaccinations (including the Bordetella vaccination) from the Veterinary Health Center at Kansas State University

© 2017 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 44 hours ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bev. Thanks for the comment. Five dogs with kennel cough must have been difficult to handle! MableAble is an interesting name. Misha's kennel cough vaccination was supposed to fight Bordetella bacteria. I'm definitely thinking very carefully about his future vaccinations.

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 2 days ago from Wales

      Lots of useful information here.

      We had this a couple of years ago. We have six (five at the time) and they all got it. As they are young and healthy - raw food diet and only puppy vaccinations - we let it run its course. One dog had it for three weeks, but the others got over it in around 10-14 days. We kept them away from other dogs and didn't walk them places that other dogs frequent. Had they been older, or more seriously affected, then we would have sought veterinary advice.

      I'm not convinced that the kennel cough vaccination is very efficient as the virus mutates constantly.

      Love your woofers! Misha looks identical to our MableAble.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Larry. Thank you very much for the comment. I hope your vet helps your dog and that she recovers quickly.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      I really think my dog has this. She's had a hacking cough for weeks exactly as you described it, and I just figured it was congestion due to season mall change.

      I'll get her to the vet. Thanks so much for alerting me to this.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Martie. I appreciate your visit.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 2 weeks ago from South Africa

      Thanks for this very interesting hub about Kennel Cough, Alicia. The videos, too, expanded my view on coughing dogs.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Devika. I think that dogs make great pets, too!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm glad your son's dog is better, Jackie. Misha is still coughing, but his condition is continuing to improve. The coughs are further apart and aren't as bad. He's happy and none of the other pets are ill, so I'm happy, too!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 weeks ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Dogs are my best pets and you definitely informed me in detail.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 weeks ago from The Beautiful South

      Those two medications must have really helped my sons bull dog (the antibiotics and Robitussin) because he was pretty bad off and it took a couple days to see much improvement but then it went pretty fast with just his appetite suffering some. He is home and all better now and hope Misha is too!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Chitrangada. Dogs do need a lot of care and attention, as you say. The effort that's needed is certainly worthwhile, though. They are lovely animals.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

      Great article with very useful information for dog owners and others in general.

      I don’t have a pet dog right now, but used to have it earlier. These pets need lot of care and awareness, just like we humans.

      As always, well written and important article. Thank You for sharing!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Yvonne. Thanks for commenting. The condition is sad if the kennel cough leads to a more serious condition. This seems to be a rare occurrence in dogs with a healthy immune system, though. Misha was unhappy when he was coughing during the worst stage of his illness, but now that his cough isn't so bad he seems to be much more comfortable.

    • Yvonne Prue profile image

      Yvonne Prue 2 weeks ago

      That’s sad

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Peg. Thank you for the comment. The disease does make the thought of boarding a dog in a kennel a bit worrying. Although the illness isn't serious in most dogs, it often takes quite a long time to disappear, as I'm discovering.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas

      Wow, this is important information. We're fearful of checking our dogs into a kennel for this exact reason and now, knowing that their annual vaccines may not prevent kennel cough, it makes it even scarier. BTW, your dogs are beautiful!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I hope no one else gets it, too! The situation is good so far. I've had eight dogs over the years, including the ones technically owned by other family members, and Misha is the first one to develop kennel cough.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 3 weeks ago from Brazil

      Thankfully our dogs have never had this, I imagine it can be traumatic for both the dog and the owners.

      I hope your other dog doesn't get it. Thank goodness they were vaccinated, this probably made it less severe.

      Interesting article, I now know what to look out for.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Nell. I'm happy to say that Misha's condition is gradually improving.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 weeks ago from England

      first of all, such beautiful dogs! I do hope he gets better soon. I had heard of it, but didn't know the hows or why's of the illness. Great information.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, Kari.

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      Kari Poulsen 3 weeks ago from Ohio

      Very nice article. I really liked it because you were able to add the symptoms your dog experienced. The vet video was very informative.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Genna. I'm glad your cat recovered. It's worrying when our older pets get ill. I wish cats and dogs had a longer lifespan and that their immune system worked well for longer.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Like humans, our beloved pets can catch diseases that can be quite serious. I'm so sorry to hear of Misha's experience with this, but pleased that he is doing better and is on the road to recovery. My cat came down with something similar last year -- a terrible cough. I took her to the vets, and she was given some medication, which cleared up the problem. It was worrisome as she never gets sick. But she is getting older -- she is sixteen -- and her immune system is not as strong as when she was in her prime. Thank you for this thoughtful and informative article.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Heidi. Thanks for the visit and the informative comment. I appreciate the comment about the pictures, too!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      This is no fun for dogs or the humans that care for them! And it's something that is so top mind in the rescue shelter community. Like yours, our dogs have routinely been vaccinated for Bordetella and luckily have never experienced it. However, it still is a concern that keeps me from boarding our babies. Thank you for sharing the detailed info!

      Also, love the pictures of Misha and Ryan!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Manatita. Yes, I am lucky to have so many pets. I love them all. I appreciate your comment very much.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 3 weeks ago from london

      A very thorough look of Misha and the condition you express here. You seem to have a few animals. Lucky you!

      Glad the dog is now o.k and I guess that in some ways, this illness is similar to the human condition. A great education for dog-owners and all dog-lovers.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Dora. I hope and expect that Misha will recover completely.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Hoping that Misha returns to full health without any other complications. Thanks for a good presentation on this disease and remedy.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Penny. Yes, it is upsetting when our pets become ill. I appreciate your visit and comment.

    • Penny Sebring profile image

      Penny Sebring 3 weeks ago from Fort Collins

      Very helpful information. It's always distressing to see our pets feeling ill, I hope Misha's cough is gone soon!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Bill. None of the other dogs that have been part of my family had kennel cough. It's a shame that Misha experienced the disease.

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      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I've never run across this, but it's great information to have. Thank you, Linda! I'll be on the lookout!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information, Dr. Mark. Your comment about the vaccine is especially interesting. I certainly hope Misha was given the antibiotic for a good reason. The overuse of antibiotics is worrying.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 3 weeks ago from The Beach of Brazil

      Very thorough article. The reason Misha got sick most likely has nothing to do with being late for that vaccine. It probably has no effect in prevention anyway.

      I am not sure about your vet, but the reason that many dogs go home on antibiotics is the same reason pediatricians give antibiotics when you take your kid in for the flu. It may not help, but it does make the family happy.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm sorry that you're all dealing with this too, Jackie! What a strange coincidence. I hope your son's dog continues to get better and recovers quickly.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 weeks ago from The Beautiful South

      My son home visiting was late getting her because he had to stop at vet over this very thing! He got antibiotics and Robitussin and seems to be doing better already.

      It was some bad sounding stuff for many hours though!

      Glad your doggy is better, too!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Flourish. Thanks for the comment. I'm happy to say that Misha does feel better, as far as I can tell from his behaviour. I hope you're enjoying Thanksgiving.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Nikki. Yes, Misha is definitely feeling better now. I'm still a little concerned about his cough, but I hope it's just a matter of waiting patiently for it to disappear. His condition has improved, which is good. I appreciate your visit.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 weeks ago from USA

      Your poor baby sounded really sick. I hope he is feeling better. This was very educational and the personal experience made it more valuable. Hope you and your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    • nikkikhan10 profile image

      Nikki Khan 3 weeks ago from London

      Very well prepared and useful for keeping an eye on kennel cough in dogs.Felt sorry for Misha,,I hope poor chap is feeling better now.Very informative for Dog owners to get their dogs checked by Vet on regular basis to look for symptoms and treatment of this disease.Thanks for sharing.

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