Kennel cough is a common, contagious condition seen in dogs, which is very rarely life threatening. Infectious tracheobronchitis (the proper term for kennel cough) simply means inflammation of the trachea (windpipe) and bronchi (deep airways). There isn’t a single pathogen that causes the disease - a variety of viruses and bacteria can cause kennel cough. The most common pathogens are parainfluenza virus and Bordatella bronchiseptica bacteria.
How Are Dogs Infected?
Dogs are infected when the virus or bacteria are inhaled into the nose and mouth. They infect the lining of the respiratory tract causing inflammation and irritation. The virus/bacteria replicate and spread to other dogs in nasal and oral secretions. Because the infection is spread by aerosol, outbreaks are particularly common where there are several dogs in a small airspace, such as boarding kennels or training classes. Infection can also be spread by direct contact, such as meeting dogs on a walk, and by sharing items such as toys and water bowls.
What Are the Symptoms of Kennel Cough?
Typically symptoms will appear 5-10 days after infection, but dogs can spread infection on before they show signs. The classic symptom of kennel cough is a dry hacking cough, often described as a “goose-honk” cough. Many dogs will cough in small fits until they bring up white frothy phlegm. Depending on the dog and severity of infection, some animals remain normal in demeanour apart from the cough. Other dogs may be generally unwell with a high temperature and lethargy. The lymph nodes (glands) in the neck may swell as the immune system fights the infection.
What is the Treatment?
Often no specific treatment is needed and signs will improve within 1-2 weeks. Try to keep dogs quiet as the cough worsens with excitement, and avoid walks to prevent spread to other dogs. If the cough is particularly bad your vet may prescribe a course of anti-inflammatories. Most cases of kennel cough are caused by viruses so antibiotics are not helpful. If your dog displays signs, such as lethargy and unwillingness to eat or drink, he/she should be checked over by your vet. Rarely other more serious conditions can have similar symptoms to kennel cough. Often very young or old animals are more severely affected, and should be monitored closely.
How Can Kennel Cough be Prevented?
In the UK there is a vaccine available to protect against kennel cough. This is a small amount of liquid given intra-nasally, and should be administered yearly. Most dogs will tolerate it well, although some take a particular dislike. The vaccine protects against the most common strains of parainfluenza and Bordetella. Unfortunately other, less common, viruses can also cause symptoms, so the vaccine does not guarantee 100% protection. Typically, vaccinated dogs who contract an unusual viral strain are less severely affected than unvaccinated dogs.
Although kennel cough can be spread by direct contact between animals it’s not a serious illness, and worry about infection should not limit encouraging socialisation of dogs.
As with any illness, if your pets’ symptoms don’t completely fit the description, or the course of disease seems longer than expected, please contact your vet for advice.