Kennel Cough

Usually contracted in boarding or grooming establishments, it can be tough to manage. We can help but it always runs its course.



As an owner of three dogs, imagine my dismay when my vet told me my little one’s problem was kennel cough.  Their only exposure was at the groomer’s.  I of course hold no one responsible, but am very curious about the “disease”, its course and the current preventatives. Only my Lhasa mix seems affected. Is it common for some dogs to seem to be “immune” while others are so sick? Do dogs completely recover?  I have had the bordetella inoculations when they were kenneled, but that has been over a year now, and I am aware that the protective time span is short.  Should dogs be inoculated all the time for this disease? Does having it offer an immunity to future infections?


Like you, these are my babies, and it is hard for me to see the little one sick but unable to let me know exactly how she feels.


Dr. Nichol:

I’m really sorry that your dogs have kennel cough. It can be a real nuisance but is seldom life threatening.


Kennel cough is not a life long disease but it certainly can seem like it-it can go on for a few weeks. Because it spreads quickly by coughing and by contact with surfaces like contaminated floors and equipment, it is considered highly infectious. So it can be a big problem with groups of dogs as in kennels and grooming shops. Kennel cough is recognized by a dry hacking cough (sometimes with gagging and retching) that’s most noticeable when there is pressure on the throat. But even though these poor dogs seem miserable, they usually continue to eat well and feel fine.


But that’s in otherwise healthy adult dogs. Dogs with underlying health conditions and puppies can get a severe bronchopneumonia that can be deadly. And that’s because of the other organisms that nearly always accompany the two main bugs that cause kennel cough: Parainfluenza virus and a bacteria called Bordetella bronchiseptica.


Now all of this sounds pretty awful but the vaccines are good-with limitations. The distemper-parvo combination given annually also protects against two of the organisms responsible for kennel cough but not Bordetella. So the best defense for dogs who are planning visits to kennels and grooming shops is to also give the bordetella vaccine. This is best administered as drops into the nose which gives a local immunity. It starts working in just 2 days-but lasts only 4-6 months. (The vaccine insert claims one year but recent independent studies have been more realistic.) And you’re right-some dogs who are exposed won’t get the disease. But I would protect any dog who is going to be kenneled just to be safe-including those who have had it in the past as there is no permanent immunity.


Lastly, here is what can be done for dogs who get kennel cough: Bronchodilators (to open airways) and cough suppressants. These help-somewhat. In addition antibiotics are important in severely ill pets but the majority of the mildly affected dogs don’t benefit much from treatment. The bottom line is that regardless of what is done the coughing runs its natural course and stops in 2-3 weeks-unless the constant hacking drives the owner around the bend sooner.