Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
What Is Kennel Cough?
Kennel Cough is a contagious illness of the upper respiratory tract (your dog's airways). The classic symptom of Kennel Cough is a honking cough (sometimes described like a goose honking) which can result in bringing up phlegm.
It is similar to a human cold, and a dog can have a sore throat, temperature or seem generally unwell. Other dogs can seem perfectly fine, except for the cough.
Kennel Cough is spread from dog to dog through the air. When a dog coughs it spits out saliva that is contaminated with Kennel Cough. If another dog breathes this in, they can become infected. It can also be transmitted by drinking from the same water bottle, sharing toys and playing together.
In most healthy dogs Kennel Cough is just an inconvenience, but in puppies, elderly dogs or those with a compromised immune system it could lead to serious complications such as pneumonia. In rare cases, it can even be fatal.
What Causes Kennel Cough?
Kennel Cough is a general term referring to a type of canine cold and it can be caused by both a virus or a bacteria, or both in combination. The commonest culprit is the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, which was first identified in 1911. Bordetella bronchiseptica is very common in animals and is spread easily.
Viral infections that cause Kennel Cough include Parainfluenza. This is a highly contagious respiratory virus that also causes a cough. Parainfluenza is sometimes confused with Canine Influenza, which is a completely different virus.
To complicate matters, sometimes the viral and bacterial forms of Kennel Cough will combine. It may be that a dog catches a virus and begins coughing which damages their throat making it easier for the bacteria to infect them. Or it can happen the other way around with the bacteria striking first.
Dogs are at most risk of catching Kennel Cough when in an environment where there are lots of other dogs around, such as parks, boarding kennels, rescue centres or at training classes and shows.
The obvious symptom of Kennel Cough is a dry, persistent cough. Dogs often have bouts of prolonged coughing and may appear to be retching. They may bring up yellow phlegm.
Other symptoms can include a loss of appetite, sleeping more than usual, a fever, sneezing, or a running nose or eyes. They can even develop redness and swelling of the eyes which can lead to conjunctivitis (infection of the eye).
Some dogs will not seem themselves, but others will appear perfectly normal aside from the coughing.
Dogs can also catch Kennel Cough and show no signs of the condition. This makes it important that if you know your dog has been around other dogs with Kennel Cough, you isolate them for at least 10 days to see if they develop the infection. Isolation means not taking them to parks or training where they could meet other dogs and pass on the problem. This also includes if you have multiple dogs and one catches Kennel Cough. In that case, you should isolate all the dogs for at least 10 days.
Dogs with Kennel Cough will be highly contagious and should not be walked where other dogs will be even if they seem fine in themselves.
After contact with an infected dog, symptoms appear between 3 to 10 days. If a pet shows no signs of the disease after that time, then they should be ok to take out in public again.
Treating Kennel Cough
For most pets, Kennel Cough is a nuisance but not life-threatening. The best treatment is making sure they get plenty of rest and to ensure they are kept warm and dry.
Honey can be given to dogs to soothe their throats and minimise coughing. No more than a teaspoon should be given at a time, and only 2-3 times in a day. Also, make sure your dog has access to plenty of fresh water as they may be extra thirsty.
Dogs take between one to three weeks to recover completely. During this period, there is a gradual improvement with less coughing, reduced severity of cough, and general improvement in energy levels and demeanour.
If a dog does not show signs of improving after the first week, especially if symptoms remain severe, then it is important to speak with your vet. Though there is no medicine to cure Kennel Cough, they may prescribe anti-inflammatories or antibiotics to help ease the symptoms.
In vulnerable dogs, this illness can produce severe complications, such as pneumonia, which is inflammation of the lungs. Without treatment, pneumonia can trigger further serious complications including sepsis (blood poisoning) and hypoxemia (dangerously low oxygen levels in the body).
Preventing Kennel Cough
Because Kennel Cough is caused by both a viral and bacterial infection, it is impossible to completely prevent a dog from catching it if they have contact with other dogs or exercise in areas where other dogs have been.
There is a vaccine that protects against Bordetella Bronchiseptica, the main bacterial cause of Kennel Cough. It does not protect against viral causes though. No vaccine is 100% effective, and dogs that have had the Kennel Cough vaccine may still pick up the illness. However, it does reduce the chances of them catching it, and it may mean the dog is less sick if they do catch it.
Dogs that are going into kennels or spend a lot of time with other dogs such as at daycare, or at training and competitions, may benefit from the protection of the vaccine.
The vaccine is a 'live vaccine' which means that dogs can experience mild symptoms of Kennel Cough after receiving it, such as coughing and sneezing. If these do not improve, or worsen, speak to your vet at once.
It is important that if your dog shows signs of Kennel Cough, you keep them away from other dogs for at least a week after they stop showing symptoms to prevent the illness from being transferred to other dogs.
While your dog may not be badly affected by the illness, another dog that is elderly, has underlying health problems, or a young puppy could be made dangerously ill. It is also important to bear in mind that even if your dog only has mild symptoms, they do need to rest to give their bodies the chance to fight the sickness.
Many training facilities, daycares and kennels will have a policy that a dog that has Kennel Cough or has been in contact with a dog with Kennel Cough recently cannot attend. This is a way to try to prevent the spread of the illness. If your dog has been near a dog that was infected, it is important you follow any guidelines your local facilities have put in place to try to stop the spread.
Can Humans Catch It?
It is extremely rare for a dog to pass Kennel Cough to a person, even if they are in close contact. However, if a person has a health condition that suppresses their immune system there is a very small risk that they could catch it.
The risk is so slight that no real scientific evidence has been collected to demonstrate how many people have contracted Kennel Cough. There is even some debate as to whether anyone has ever contracted Kennel Cough.
The bordetella bacteria that causes Kennel Cough can be contracted by humans from sources other than pet dogs, therefore you should not be overly concerned about being around your pet when they are sick. Regularly washing hands, and not allowing sick dogs to be close to your face may be advisable, but even without these precautions, it is extremely unlikely you will get sick.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Sophie Jackson