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(ALSO CALLED CANINE INFECTIOUS RESPIRATORY DISEASE,
Numerous organisms may be involved in a case of kennel cough; it would be unusual for only one agent to be involved. Infections with the following organisms frequently occur concurrently to create a case of kennel cough:
The classical combination for uncomplicated kennel cough is infection with Parainfluenza or Adenovirus Type 2 in combination with Bordetella bronchiseptica. Infections involving the distemper virus, Mycoplasma species, or canine influenza are more prone to progressing to pneumonia but pneumonia can readily result in any dog or puppy that is sufficiently young, stressed, or debilitated.
NOT SURE WHAT A COUGHING DOG SOUNDS LIKE?
Dogs can make an assortment of respiratory sounds. Usually a cough is very recognizable but it is important to be aware of another sound called a “reverse sneeze.” The reverse sneeze is often mistaken for a cough, for a choking fit, for sneezing, for retching, or even for some sort of respiratory distress. In fact, the reverse sneeze represents a post-nasal drip or “tickle in the throat.” It is considered normal especially for small dogs or dogs and only requires attention if it is felt to be “excessive.” The point here is to know a cough when you see one. A cough can be dry or “productive,” meaning it is followed by a gag, swallowing motion, production of foamy mucus (not to be confused with vomiting). Here are some videos that might help:
COUGHING DOG (WITH PRODUCTIVE COUGH):
REVERSE SNEEZING DOG:
HOW INFECTION OCCURS?
The infected dog sheds infectious bacteria and/or viruses in respiratory secretions. These secretions become aerosolized and float in the air to be inhaled by a healthy dog. Obviously, crowded housing and suboptimal ventilation play important roles in the likelihood of transmission but organisms may also be transmitted on toys, food bowls or other objects.
The normal respiratory tract has substantial safeguards against invading infectious agents. The most important of these is probably what is called the “mucociliary escalator.” This safeguard consists of tiny hair-like structures called “cilia”, which protrude from the cells lining the respiratory tract, and extend into a coat of mucus over them. The cilia beat in a coordinated fashion through the lower and more watery mucus layer called the “sol.” A thicker mucus layer called the “gel” floats on top of the sol. Debris, including infectious agents, get trapped in the sticky gel and the cilia move them upward towards the throat where the collection of debris and mucus may be coughed up and/or swallowed.
The mucociliary escalator is damaged by the following:
Without this a fully functional mucociliary escalator, invading bacteria, especially Bordetella bronchiseptica, the chief agent of Kennel Cough, may simply march down the airways unimpeded.
Bordetella bronchiseptica organisms have some tricks of their own as well:
Classically, dogs get infected when they are kept in a crowded situation with poor air circulation but lots of warm air (i.e. a boarding kennel, vaccination clinic, obedience class, local park, animal shelter, animal hospital waiting room, or grooming parlor). In reality, most causes of coughing that begin acutely in the dog are due to infectious causes and usually represent some form of Kennel Cough.
THE INCUBATION PERIOD IS 2 - 14 DAYS.
HOW IS DIAGNOSIS MADE?
Usually the history of exposure to a crowd of dogs within the proper time frame plus typical examination findings (coughing dog that otherwise feels well) is adequate to make the diagnosis. Radiographs show bronchitis and are particularly helpful in determining if a complicating pneumonia is present.
Recently, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) panels have become available in many reference laboratories. Using technology to amplify the presence of DNA in a swab, the lab is able to test for the presence of most of the kennel cough infectious agents listed. This knowledge is helpful in guiding therapy and understanding expectations.
A coughing dog that has a poor appetite, fever, and/or listlessness should be evaluated for pneumonia.
HOW IS KENNEL COUGH TREATED?
An uncomplicated case of Kennel Cough will go away by itself. Cough suppressants can improve patient comfort while the infection is resolving. The dog should be clearly improved if not recovered after about a week. That said, several infectious agents in the Kennel Cough complex are more intense and can cause a minor bronchitis to progress to pneumonia which is a potentially life-threatening disease. Given this possibility, antibiotics are frequently prescribed to Kennel Cough patients to prevent or curtail pneumonia before it warrants hospitalization.
It is important to distinguish an uncomplicated case of Kennel Cough from one complicated by pneumonia for obvious reasons. The uncomplicated cases will not have fever or appetite loss and they will not be listless. As mentioned, they will seem normal except for coughing. Dogs with pneumonia appear sick. For more information on pneumonia, click here.
PREVENTION THROUGH VACCINATION
Vaccination is only available for: Bordetella bronchiseptica, Canine Adenovirus Type 2, Canine Parainfluenza virus, Canine Distemper, and Canine Influenza. Infections with other members of the Kennel Cough complex cannot be prevented. Vaccine against Adenovirus Type 2, Parainfluenza, and Canine Distemper is generally included in the basic puppy series and subsequent boosters (the DHPP or "distemper-parvo shot." For Bordetella bronchiseptica vaccination can either be given as a separate injection or as a nasal immunization. There is some controversy regarding which method provides a better immunization or if a combination of both formats is best.
Injectable vaccination is a good choice for aggressive dogs, who may bite if their muzzle is approached. For puppies, injectable vaccination provides good systemic immunity as long as two doses are given (approximately one month apart) after age 4 months. Boosters are generally given annually. Some dogs experience a small lump under the skin at the injection site. This should resolve without treatment.
VACCINATION IS NOT USEFUL IN A DOG ALREADY INCUBATING KENNEL COUGH.
Bordetella bronchiseptica vaccination may not prevent infection.
Dogs that have recovered from Bordetella bronchiseptica
WHAT IF KENNEL COUGH DOESN’T IMPROVE?
As previously noted, this infection is generally self-limiting. It should be at least improved partially after one week of treatment. If no improvement has been observed in this time, a re-check exam (possibly including radiographs of the chest) would be a good idea. Failure of Kennel Cough to resolve suggests an underlying condition. Kennel Cough can activate a previously asymptomatic collapsing trachea or the condition may have progressed to pneumonia. Alternatively, there may be another disease afoot entirely such as non-infectious bronchitis, congestive heart failure, or some other condition that causes cough.
If you have questions about a coughing dog, do not hesitate to bring them to your veterinarian, or click the “Ask the Vet” function below.
Page last updated: 12/3/2020