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Medically Reviewed by Veterinarian Angela Dwywer, DVM on May 5, 2018
Table of Contents
Summertime often means family vacations, road trips, and taking off on a whim to enjoy the nice weather and being out of school. For your dog, this could be an exciting time to hang out with the family as well. But not everyone is able to take their dog with them traveling. A common thing for dogs around this time of year is a quick sleepover in a boarding facility – and that means that they could be facing a very serious illness that comes from being around other dogs called kennel cough.
If you’ve ever had a boarding facility absolutely insist that your dog have a kennel cough vaccine before they can stay, you’ll soon understand why. This dangerous illness got its name because it’s so commonly passed around in facilities where lots of dogs are thrown into the same space. So if you find a facility that doesn’t insist on this policy? You may want to stay away or risk your dog being boarded with unvaccinated dogs.
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Here’s what you need to know about kennel cough:
1. What is kennel cough, anyway?
In some ways, you can think of kennel cough as being like a really bad chest cold. That’s how it starts, anyway. Kennel cough is an infection in the windpipe caused by both a virus and bacteria – your dog can get the infection from either avenue, and it’s so easy to trade it back and forth among unvaccinated dogs that you’re almost getting a non-stop cycle of wellness and cough if your dog is always around other dogs.
Getting a kennel cough vaccination isn’t just for staying in a kennel. If your dog goes to obedience classes or stays at the groomer’s during the day of their appointment, it’s a good idea to get them vaccinated against this infection.
2. How exactly does kennel cough spread?
Like any bacterial and viral infection, kennel cough can be passed from dog to dog in a variety of ways. It’s primarily airborne, so when one dog coughs, they send some of the bacteria into the air. Then another dog breathes it in and becomes infected. One major reason that it is a frequent visitor to kennels is that kennels often have poor circulation, which causes the bacteria to hang out in the air longer.
However, like viral infections, coming into contact with surfaces where a dog has coughed is another possibility for infection. So in a kennel where one dog checks out, and another checks in, and is put into the same kennel, it’s easy for contact infection to occur as well.
3. Some dogs are more prone to infection than others
There are some dogs that are more prone to getting kennel cough infections. For example, if your dog is a puppy, a senior citizen, has a compromised immune system, or is unvaccinated, he is more likely to get infected. And for the first three groups, it’s very easy for this infection to turn into pneumonia, which can be deadly for dogs. Other dogs who may be at higher risk for getting kennel cough include pregnant dogs and those who already have respiratory problems, like Bulldogs and other dogs with flat snouts.
It’s pretty easy to identify kennel cough versus any other type of cough, because a kennel cough infection has a “honking” sound, almost like a goose. Your dog may not change any of their usual eating or playing habits at all, so it’s easy just to ignore the cough – but this could be a big problem if the infection worsens. Other symptoms to watch out for include:
Dry heaving or retching
Spitting up a white, foamy substance
Having worse coughing after exercise
Watery discharge from the nose
Not wanting to eat
In very severe cases, kennel cough can lead to death, as well as severe pneumonia.
5. How is kennel cough diagnosed and what is the prognosis?
Most of the time, veterinarians diagnose kennel cough simply observing the symptoms. They’ll ask you if your dog has been around other dogs recently, and if so, and if the main symptoms present, then they’ll likely go ahead with the diagnoses. However, if there is any question about what your dog may be experiencing, they might order blood tests, urine samples, and chest x-rays.
The prognosis for kennel cough is good if it is diagnosed and treated right away. However, because it’s such a contagious disease, dogs that have kennel cough should be kept isolated away from other dogs. Dogs that get treatment right away generally go on to be no more or less susceptible to the illness than dogs who have never had kennel cough before.
There is one thing to know if your dog is around small children or any people with compromised immune systems: for these two groups of people, kennel cough can be transferred. The bacterial or virus can cause infection in people as well in these two cases. If you have a dog with kennel cough and anyone from these two groups lives with you, it is best to keep the dog away until they are well again.
6. How can you prevent or treat kennel cough?
Yes, kennel cough can be treated, and there are several ways to prevent your dog from being exposed to the infection as well. Let’s start with the treatment.
The most common cases of kennel cough are mild and don’t require antibiotics. Most vets will suggest that you keep an eye on it and let the illness run its course. More severe cases, where the dog is having a hard time eating or drinking, will involve antibiotics. If your dog is struggling with regular activities like sleeping and playing, you may need to go even further with hospitalization and fluids. Hydration is very important at any stage of this illness.
The first step to prevention is getting your dog vaccinated. It is not a foolproof method of preventing kennel cough, but it will give your dog the best chance of avoiding the infection. Making sure that your dog stays in a kennel that requires the vaccination and has well-ventilated premises is another good start, as well as keeping your dog away from any dog at the dog park or elsewhere who is showing signs of that persistent, honking cough.
Finally, make sure that you are using a pet-safe disinfectant in your home if any of your dogs get kennel cough, to get rid of the bacteria or virus.
7. How can you make your dog feel more comfortable?
While your dog deals with the infection, there are some ways that you can make your dog more comfortable. For example, your vet could prescribe a basic cough suppressant even if they don’t offer antibiotics. Another thing you can do is to swap out your dog’s collar for a body harness, which won’t pull on their throat and cause more coughing. There are some all-natural antibacterial drops on the market, but these are not tested by vets, so be sure to check them out carefully before using.
You can also run a humidifier to help your dog breathe easier, and be sure that you aren’t smoking near your dog at all. Most dogs don’t have to deal with a mild case of kennel cough for more than six days, although milder cases will last up to 20. However, and this is very important – your dog is contagious for up to 15 weeks after symptoms disappear.
If going to the kennel almost always results in your dog getting a case of kennel cough, there are several other options. You could also:
Take your dog with you! Dogs love to go on car rides with you if you’re just going on a short trip. Just be sure to take care of any car sickness issues and away you go.
Hire a pet sitter. Hiring a good pet sitter takes a little bit of time, but it’s worth the investment never to have to deal with kennel cough again. Consider finding someone you trust to come to your house and take care of your dog, or sending them to someone’s house to be watched over.
If your dog is well-behaved, try a virtual nanny! A pet camera that lets you check in on your dog throughout the day may work just fine for a short day trip and a well-behaved dog.
Consider boarding a vet facility. Many vet offices offer boarding as well, and you know that a vet will require the proper vaccinations and provide a clean space. If the only option is to board your dog, consider starting with a vet boarding facility as the first choice.
One of the biggest reasons that a dog will get kennel cough is that their immune system isn’t as strong as it could be. Here are some ways to boost your dog’s immune system:
Get more exercise. As always, more exercise and more playtime are key for a healthy dog. Strap on the leash as much as possible, grab some fetch balls, and head outdoors with your dog to keep them healthier.
Help them trim down with lower-calorie food or less food. Obese dogs have a harder time staying healthier than dogs that are in good shape. Choose a food and a serving size that suit your dog’s ideal health, and be sure they are getting that exercise.
Add omega-3 fatty acid supplements to their diet. These help promote healthy immune responses in times of stress, and also improve your dog’s overall health. Other natural supplements that can help improve dog immune systems include olive leaf extract and various mushrooms.
Only medicate your dog when you absolutely have to. Getting sick and fighting off sickness on their own is part of how dogs develop stronger immune systems. If it is not absolutely necessary, consider giving your dog comforting measures and letting them fend off mild sickness on their own.
Minimize the stress in your dog’s life. Just like humans, stress can cause the immune system to go haywire. If your dog gets anxious due to separation or storms, consider finding ways to help them deal with these feelings – like a
Make sure your dog has clean water and high-quality food at all times. What they eat and drink is what they are, so if you choose better quality food and clean water every time, they’ll be healthier overall.
These are just a few tips for helping make your dog more resilient in the face of illnesses like kennel cough.
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The Final Word
Kennel cough may sound like no big deal, but if dogs develop pneumonia and more serious respiratory issues as a complication of kennel cough, it could get much worse.
That’s why, even if your vet ends up suggesting you don’t use any medication, it’s still a good idea to go to the vet if you hear this type of coughing or see other symptoms of kennel cough. Your vet can get an idea of where your pet’s health is now, so if there is any deterioration in the future, they’ll know as they monitor.
And again, be sure that you are always very careful about where you take your dogs. If you can find a dog park that requires vaccines, for example, that’s much better for your dog than just heading to the regular park.
But if you can’t take extreme measures like that, just getting your dog vaccinated is the most responsible thing you can do as a dog owner. Ask your vet about the kennel cough vaccine during your dog’s regular vaccinations, or any time you intend to board your dog or visit a place where there will be many dogs.
This will offer your dog the best chance of avoiding this painful and annoying infection, and the subsequent symptoms. And it will also help prevent more serious cases of worse respiratory issues.