Dog coughing
If your dog has kennel cough, you’ll no doubt hear about it: A blaring, hacking cough like a goose honk is the most common sign. Affected dogs will often retch and gag, as if trying to dislodge something from their throats.

This extremely contagious respiratory disease, also known as canine infectious tracheobronchitis, isn’t always caused by a single organism. In fact, it often involves a number of them. Common canine viruses including distemper, adenovirus type 2, parainfluenza, reovirus or herpes virus may be involved, as well as bacteria such as Bordetella bronchiseptica or even other organisms. 

Aptly nicknamed “kennel cough,” the infection is commonly associated with places where dogs are exposed to other dogs, such as kennels, shelters, grooming facilities, dog shows and pet shops.

A Very Catchy Disease 

When an infected dog coughs, viruses and bacteria are dispersed into the air. Other dogs become infected when they inhale these infectious organisms, which, in turn, irritate the lining of their respiratory tracts, making them vulnerable to other organisms.

Dogs don’t need to have direct contact with sick dogs to become infected. The viruses and bacteria can even spread on toys and food and water bowls. Depending on the organisms involved, dogs will start to show signs four to 10 days after infection.

Coughing, Hacking and Retching

With a mild, uncomplicated infection, your dog may have a dry, unproductive cough (meaning he doesn’t bring up phlegm or mucus when he coughs) that can worsen when he exercises, is excited or pulls against his collar. Usually, he’ll still have plenty of energy and an appetite. 

Signs of a secondary bacterial infection can include lethargy, nasal discharge and loss of appetite. The infection can also spread deeper into the lungs, leading to pneumonia, which can be life threatening. In such severe cases, dogs may have a wet, productive cough (bringing up phlegm or mucus), difficulty breathing, fever and weight loss.   

Diagnosis and Treatment 

Your veterinarian can usually diagnose kennel cough based on your dog’s history and clinical signs, along with a physical exam. In many cases, simply placing gentle pressure on the trachea will elicit the telltale coughing. To help determine the severity of infection, your veterinarian may recommend additional tests, such as bloodwork and X-rays. If necessary, other tests can help identify the exact organisms involved, to help guide treatment. 

All dogs with kennel cough should be isolated for at least two weeks to help prevent exposing other dogs to the infectious organisms. Although kennel cough is typically not spread to humans, people who are immunocompromised may be at risk for certain bacterial agents. 

If your dog has a dry, unproductive cough, your veterinarian may recommend a cough suppressant, but many uncomplicated cases will resolve without medication. You should allow your dog to rest for 10 to 14 days, restricting activity (limit jumping, running, stairs and exertion). To prevent further irritation of the respiratory tract during recovery, you may want to use a halter instead of a collar. You should also make sure your dog continues to eat and drink normally. 

In more severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics to treat bacterial infections and may even recommend hospitalization.

Even with treatment, it may take several days or more for the infection to run its course, somewhat like a common cold in humans.

An Ounce of Prevention

The core vaccines that are recommended for your dog include protection against some — but not all — of the viruses that can cause kennel cough. And a Bordetella bronchiseptica vaccine, available in nasal, injectable or oral forms, can help protect against this common bacteria. Vaccine boosters are usually recommended once a year. If your dog frequents boarding kennels, dog shows or the groomer, your veterinarian may recommend that he receives this vaccine more often, usually every six months. 

Of course, no vaccine can guarantee your dog won’t get kennel cough. But if he does come down with it, these vaccines may help reduce the severity of the disease. And if your dog is doing less loud hacking and honking, chances are, you’ll feel better, too. 

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