There is a common misconception that only kenneled dogs can get the disease termed “kennel cough.” It’s easy to understand, given the name, why many dog owners believe this to be true. However, recently Kevin found out that this is not necessarily the case when his dog Tosha was suspected to have contracted “kennel cough” from contact with another dog as they cruised the fence line together.
“Kennel cough” is a complex disease. While it is more common in kennel situations because of environmental conditions such as close conditions (i.e. many dogs housed in a small space), the fact that ventilation may be less than ideal in some of these situations, and the stress that many dogs encounter when kenneled, there is also a contagious component of the disease.
Bacterial diseases such as Bordetella and viral diseases such as canine influenza can contribute to the development of the symptoms seen with “kennel cough.” Some kennels require vaccinations against one or both of these diseases before admitting a dog to the kennel. Many people refer to the vaccination against Bordetella as the “kennel cough vaccine” although in truth this is a bit of a misnomer.
Both Bordetella and canine influenza can be contagious diseases and can be passed from dog to dog even outside of a kennel situation. In many communities, canine influenza is a completely new disease. In these communities, most dogs will have no natural immunity to the disease and are thus susceptible to the disease. Even when vaccinated, exposed dogs can still become infected, though often symptoms are less severe. Fortunately, even for unvaccinated dogs, symptoms are typically mild and self-limiting for most dogs.
Symptoms of “kennel cough” can vary depending on the individual case and the exact cause. The most common symptom seen is, as the name suggests, a cough. Usually, it is a deep-throated cough that sounds as if your dog is choking. Other symptoms that may be seen include runny eyes or a runny nose. Your dog may lose his appetite and become less active than normal. In rare cases, pneumonia may result and may become serious and even life-threatening. Symptoms are similar for all causes of “kennel cough” and often an exact cause (i.e. Bordetella vs canine influenza vs other potential causes) is never actually identified. The disease is simply classified as a case of “kennel cough.”
While vaccination against Bordetella and/or canine influenza does afford some protection against the most serious of the “kennel cough” symptoms, vaccination does not guarantee freedom from illness. Because “kennel cough” so often has a multi-factorial cause (i.e. crowded conditions coupled with poor ventilation, stress, and/or exposure to respiratory bacteria or viruses), there is no one vaccine that is capable of producing complete protection. Also, dog owners need to realize that these vaccines are not considered core (essential) vaccines but are recommended based on an analysis of the risk of exposure against the risk of vaccination side effects.
Treatment of “kennel cough” depends on the individual case as well. In some cases, no treatment is necessary and the symptoms resolve without veterinary intervention. Other dogs may require antibiotics, cough suppressants or other medications. Dogs with serious complications like pneumonia may require hospitalization and life-saving measures.
While “kennel cough” is most often seen in kennel situations, the disease can, under the right conditions, be considered a contagious disease and may be passed to dogs that are not kenneled.
Dr. Lorie Huston was an accomplished veterinarian, an award-winning blogger, a talented author and a certified veterinary journalist. She passed in September of 2014 and left a legacy of caring and compassion for animals and humans alike.