Kennel Cough

29th Jan, 2019

We went away over the Christmas period and boarded our dog Harvey at the local kennels. He needed to be up to date with his regular vaccinations, and he also had to be vaccinated against kennel cough. We are back home now and Harvey is fine, but I’d really like some more information about kennel cough.

Samantha Hood, Pretoria

Dr Mirjam van der Wel answers…

What is kennel cough?

Kennel cough is the common name given to infectious tracheobronchitis, an inflammation of the upper airways (trachea and bronchi). The most notable symptom of kennel cough is a dry, hacking, non-productive cough, often followed by retching and gagging. It can look like your dog has something stuck in its throat. It’s much like when a human has a cold and suffers from a dry, tickling cough that just doesn’t go away.

What causes kennel cough?

Kennel cough is a multifactorial disease and can be caused by a number of agents (viruses, bacteria).

  • Bordetella bronchiseptica (bacteria) – this is one of the main culprits, and the kennel cough vaccine gives specific resistance to Bordetella
  • Parainfluenza virus
  • Adenovirus type 2
  • Canine distemper virus
  • Canine influenza virus
  • Canine herpesvirus (very young puppies)
  • Mycoplasma canis (a single-cell organism that is neither virus nor bacterium)
  • Canine reovirus

How does a dog get kennel cough?

Kennel cough is spread in droplets (coughing and sneezing) and the sharing of food bowls and toys. The disease is called kennel cough because kennels (or any place where multiple dogs are kept together) is the environment where they are most likely to catch it.

It’s like humans catching a cold. If you’re at a braai in somebody’s yard and someone has a bad cold, you’re not likely to catch it (unless you share their drinking glass/eating utensils). But if you’re in a confined space such as a lift and a person with a cold coughs (thus spreading the infectious particles), chances are you’ll catch it too.

So, my dog doesn’t have to stay in kennels to catch kennel cough?

That’s right, your dog can catch kennel cough anywhere that’s frequented by other (infected) dogs. But dogs are most at risk when they’re kept together in groups:

  • Animal shelters
  • Boarding kennels
  • Dog daycare facilities
  • Dog training facilities
  • Dog shows

Other contributing factors include stress, cold, draughts, high humidity, poor hygiene and poor nutrition. Dogs that are very young, old or ill are also more susceptible.

How will I know if my dog has kennel cough?

The most notable symptom of kennel cough is a dry, hacking cough. The dog may have some clear discharge from its nose and discharge from eyes, and you may notice a slight reduction in appetite, although the dog seems happy enough. In most cases, kennel cough is more of a nuisance (the coughing can be exhausting for dog and owner!) than a serious disease.

However, sometimes the disease complicates (especially at risk are the young, the old and the immune-compromised) and the dog becomes very ill due to secondary infections and pneumonia.

The dog will have a moist, productive cough, run a fever, lose its appetite and show reluctance to exercise. The discharge from the nose may be white or yellow. The dog will be ill. Involved veterinary treatment will be necessary and, although rare, death may occur.

So, does every dog with a cough have kennel cough?

No, a whole bunch of other things can cause a cough. A few common causes for coughing that aren’t kennel cough are listed below:

  • Tracheal collapse
  • Respiratory irritants
  • Pneumonia
  • Other infections (bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic)
  • Foreign object in the throat
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer 

How is kennel cough treated?

There’s no specific test for kennel cough, but during an examination your vet can rule out a number of other causes for your dog’s coughing. Because the disease is often mild, your dog will probably be given some anti-inflammatories, a cough suppressant and maybe antibiotics. Note that antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses. Further treatment is only necessary if your dog develops complications.

How can I prevent kennel cough?

As much as possible, minimise risky situations (risk factors mentioned earlier), and if your dog does have to go into kennels or other (stressful) situations, get it vaccinated!

Kennel cough is a very contagious disease (it spreads easily), and other animals should be kept away from the patient.

A vaccinated dog may still get kennel cough, but because they have immunity against some of the main components that cause kennel cough, the symptoms are likely to be (very) mild.