There you are, lying in bed, dreaming of taking your dog Lucky to the dog park the next day when through the darkness you hear the first muffled sounds of your beloved one starting to cough… Is this merely a nightmare? Or could it be… the dreaded Kennel Cough?!? You’ve heard about this disease, but wonder what it is, how it is transmitted, and what to do about it.
Infectious tracheobronchitis, also known as “kennel cough,” is caused by a collection of highly contagious respiratory pathogens. In fact, multiple infectious organisms may be involved in a single case, including Bordetella bronchiseptica, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus type 2, canine distemper virus, canine influenza virus, canine herpesvirus, mycoplasma canis, and canine reovirus. Rarely, kennel cough can be spread to humans; however there have only been a handful of cases and it is typically only a risk with severely immunocompromised people. Canine influenza, which is uncommon, typically causes much more severe disease with fever and pneumonia, but often times starts out looking like classic kennel cough.
Kennel cough can occur year-round and the incubation period, time it takes from exposure to onset of symptoms, is 2 to 14 days. Dogs typically only show clinical signs for 1-2 weeks, but infected animals can continue to shed the organism via respiratory secretions for up to 3 months. Young, stressed or debilitated animals are more susceptible than adult pets. Furthermore, compromised respiratory health secondary to heavy dust, cigarette smoke, cold temperature and/or poor ventilation can also make pets more prone to infection. Infection is spread via animal-to-animal contact, aerosolized respiratory secretions or inanimate objects that get “blessed” by an infected animal.
Clinical signs in dogs typically include an acute-onset, non-productive, dry, hacking cough, with coughing fits occasionally ending in a terminal retch (that white foamy material that is brought up at the end of a hack). While typically limited to the upper respiratory tract, kennel cough can occasionally spread to the lower airways resulting in pneumonia. Uncomplicated upper respiratory cases typically do not entail a fever, poor appetite or significant lethargy, so these are important signs for which to watch when monitoring for progression to pneumonia.
If your dog is coughing, it is important to bring them in to be evaluated by your veterinarian. Often times, the diagnosis of kennel cough can be made based on history and physical exam; depending on exam findings, severity of signs or chronicity, your veterinarian may recommend chest x-rays to screen for complicating pneumonia and/or infectious disease confirmatory tests to identify the exact combination of involved infectious agents to help guide therapy. The treatment for kennel cough often involves a course of antibiotics +/- other supportive care as needed based on severity and symptoms.
Vaccination is available for a number of the kennel cough organisms (Bordetella bronchiseptica, canine adenovirus type 2, canine parainfluenza virus, canine distemper, and canine influenza), but not all can be prevented. The canine influenza vaccination is especially recommended for dogs that travel to dog shows, race tracks or other high density areas, or if there is a documented case in the area. It is important to note that vaccination is not useful in a dog already incubating kennel cough. If you plan on boarding your dog and more than 6 months have passed since your dog’s last Bordetella vaccination, ideally booster that vaccine at least 5 days prior to boarding. It may not fully prevent infection, but often times it can lessen the clinical signs and duration associated with disease. Recovering dogs that contracted kennel cough are typically immune to reinfection for 6-12 months afterward (assuming the same pathogens are involved with the repeat exposure).
If there is an outbreak in your area, but your dog is not yet showing symptoms, there are a couple things that may help keep your dog healthy. First, ensure that your dog’s Bordetella vaccination is up to date (every 6 months), but remember that the vaccination will not help if your dog is already incubating the disease. Avoid contact as much as possible with potential sources of infection and ensure that your dog is otherwise as healthy as possible (not stressed or sick from something else) and ready to fight off the invading pathogen if exposed. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, including but not limited to coughing, lethargy, decreased appetite, fever, etc, please bring your dog in to the vet to be examined sooner rather than later to minimize the risk of serious disease developing.
My sincere wishes for the health and happiness of all your furry family members. Keep well and enjoy the rest of your summer!
Dr. Kristin Lester, DVM
Seaport Animal Hospital