Kennel cough (infectious tracheobronchitis) in canines is a highly contagious respiratory infection similar to a cold in humans. It can be caused by a variety of viruses or bacteria, but the most common culprits are Adenovirus, Parainfluenza virus, Canine Distemper Virus and the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacterium. Like the human cold kennel cough symptoms can range from very mild to severe, although life-threatening cases are unusual.
The illness is spread when an infected dog coughs and a susceptible dog inhales the airborne microorganisms. The incubation period is from three to ten days after the initial exposure. The symptoms may last a few days or several weeks. Puppies, young dogs and dogs with insufficient immune systems are at greatest risk.
Kennel cough is usually transmitted by infected dogs who associate with other groups of dogs in enclosed areas such as boarding kennels, indoor dogs shows, grooming salons, veterinarians’ offices and animals shelters. Even the cleanest and best-kept kennels may have outbreaks. Dogs may have mild symptoms that are undetected, or may spread the illness for several days after they seem to have recovered. The illness may also be picked up by coming in contact with one other infected dog, perhaps the neighbors’ dog.
The first sign is a dry, high-pitched, hacking cough that sounds as if the dog has something stuck in his throat. He may cough every few minutes throughout the day and produce a foamy white discharge. Other symptoms may vary in severity and include eye inflammation, a runny nose, difficulty breathing, fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. In very mild cases the dog may have no other symptoms and may eat and play normally. It is normal for dogs to cough occasionally, but a cough that is persistent and does not clear up within a week or so should be evaluated by a veterinarian to make sure pneumonia has not set in. Other illnesses may cause similar symptoms, and the vet may have to run diagnostic tests that rule out other conditions including objects lodged in the windpipe, parasitic infestations, tonsillitis, fungal infections of the lungs, tumors of the lungs or windpipe and allergic or chronic bronchitis.
Like the human cold symptoms often subside gradually without treatment. In more serious cases the dog may be given a cough suppressant, but never give your dog OTC human cough medicines without consulting your vet first. The veterinarian may take a chest x-ray to determine if pneumonia is present and prescribe an antibiotic for secondary infection if necessary. Home care for kennel cough is similar to care for a human respiratory infection. Exertion may bring on a fit of coughing, so keep his exercise limited. Be sure the dog drinks plenty of water and put him on a diet of soft food if hard food seems to irritate his throat. Keep the patient warm and dry and avoid exposure to dust, chemical fumes, cigarette smoke and other pollutants. Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air in his environment. Avoid contact with other dogs during his illness and for at least a week after his apparent recovery to avoid spreading the disease. Once the dog has recovered he will have immunity to subsequent exposures of the infective organism.
Vaccinations may offer some protection but are not 100% effective because of the wide variety of organisms that can produce kennel cough. Commercial kennel cough vaccines only contain the Bordatella agent. Routine yearly vaccinations usually include Canine Distemper Virus, Parainfluenza and Adenovirus agents. If your dog is not around other dogs often, the need for vaccination is not great, but owners who board their dogs or compete in shows may want to protect their dogs from kennel cough. Vaccinations should be given at least two weeks prior to potential exposure to give the dog’s immune system adequate time to build up resistance.