By Dr. Becker
If your dog seems to be coughing a lot or making choking sounds, he may have a case of canine infectious tracheobronchitis, more commonly known as kennel cough. Believe it or not, as awful as the choking, hacking noises sound, most episodes of kennel cough are not serious and resolve without treatment.
Kennel cough has a number of different causes, only one of which — the most common cause — is the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria. Many people think bordetella is kennel cough, but that is technically inaccurate. In fact, dogs that acquire the bordetella bacteria usually have a virus that makes them more vulnerable to infection. Some of these viruses are the canine adenovirus, distemper, canine herpes, and the parainfluenza virus. Kennel cough is a form of bronchitis and is similar to a chest cold in humans.
How Dogs Get Kennel Cough
Kennel cough is contagious, so whether your dog has the illness or you know of dogs that do, make sure to keep them apart until they are well. Your dog comes down with kennel cough when she inhales bacteria or virus particles. The canine respiratory tract is coated in a protective lining of mucus, but if this lining is compromised, an infection can take hold from the inhaled particles. The result is inflammation of the larynx and trachea, and it's the inflammation that causes the coughing reflex in your pup.
The lining of the respiratory tract can be debilitated through exposure to cold temperatures; dust, cigarette smoke or other particles in the air; stressful situations like travel; and time spent in crowded conditions like those found in many animal shelters and boarding kennels. A weakened respiratory tract lining can't provide your dog protection against inhaled infectious particles.
The universal symptom of a bordetella infection is a persistent, hard, "honking" cough. Your pup may gag or cough up foamy looking white phlegm. Occasionally a dog will have other signs of illness like a running nose, sneezing or a discharge from his eyes. Kennel cough rarely results in appetite loss or lethargy, so if your pup is showing those symptoms as well, there could be something else going on.
Treatment for Kennel Cough
Since most cases of kennel cough resolve without medical intervention, I don't recommend immediate or automatic treatment with antibiotics or other medications. Allowing your pet's body to heal itself naturally is always advisable. Complete recovery from a bordetella infection can take up to three weeks in healthy dogs, and twice as long in older pets or those with other underlying conditions.
Occasionally, a serious episode of kennel cough can result in pneumonia. If your dog doesn't start to improve on her own within a few weeks, make an appointment with your vet to be on the safe side. This advice also applies if your pup is having symptoms beyond what is seen with kennel cough, in particular any change in breathing patterns, appetite or energy level.
During the acute phase of the illness, consider using a harness temporarily if your dog's collar seems to be aggravating the situation -- especially if she strains against her leash. You can also try humidifying the air she breathes to help reduce or alleviate coughing spells.
About Vaccines for Kennel Cough
Many veterinarians recommend bordetella vaccines – either by injection or nasal mist delivery. I'm not one of them, however. Many boarding kennels, doggie daycare facilities, groomers and other similar businesses require dogs be vaccinated for kennel cough. Please understand the reason behind this requirement – it is to remove liability from those establishments.
The truth is, these vaccines are ineffective and will not prevent your dog from getting kennel cough. The infection is caused by a wide variety of bacterial and viral agents, and no single vaccine can provide protection from them all. Nor will the vaccines treat an active infection.
On the rare occasion I provide a bordetella vaccine -- usually for a client who is leaving a dog at a facility that demands it -- I always use the nose drop variety as it is much less toxic, doesn't contain adjuvants, and has few if any side effects. And remember, your dog can still acquire the infection even if she's been vaccinated. If you must vaccinate your dog for some reason with the injectable kennel cough vaccine, consult a holistic veterinarian about detox agents and doses.
Nine Safe Remedies for Kennel Cough
1. Nosodes — A nosode is a homeopathic remedy derived from a pathological specimen. Nosodes stimulate the natural immune system to react against specific diseases. Kennel cough nosodes are particularly effective.
2. Esberitox — This is a fast-acting Echinacea that I have found very effective in reducing the virulence of bordetella infections.
3. Vitamins C and E — Vitamin C is an antiviral and E provides immune system support.
4. Oregano oil has antiseptic, antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties.
5. Astragalus is an herb used in Chinese medicine to enhance the immune system, support lung function and stimulate the regeneration of bronchial cells.
6. Raw garlic and olive leaf are natural antibacterial and antiviral agents.
7. Raw honey will ease the discomfort of coughing, and certain herbs will soothe and naturally suppress a cough, among them licorice root and marshmallow.
8. Essential oils can be used to help a pup with kennel cough breathe easier. Oils of eucalyptus, lavender and tea tree have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Chamomile has a calming effect.
9. Slippery Elm can help soothe sore and irritated throats.
As always, you should talk with your holistic veterinarian about natural remedies and the doses or applications most appropriate for your pet.