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What’s the Best Protection Against Kennel Cough?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Kennel cough, also called Bordetella, is a very common canine upper respiratory infection that is most commonly triggered by the presence of both the parainfluenza virus and the bacteria called Bordetella bronchiseptica.
  • Kennel cough is highly contagious and is spread in the air by the sneezes and coughs of infected dogs. Healthy dogs contract the condition when bacterial agents in those secretions enter the respiratory tract.
  • Most cases of kennel cough originate in places where dogs are housed in close quarters – places like shelters, boarding kennels and grooming shops.
  • Most cases of kennel cough resolve on their own without medical intervention, but in more serious cases pneumonia can develop. While it’s rare, dogs do occasionally die from kennel cough – but these are usually young puppies or dogs with compromised immune systems.
  • The Bordetella vaccine is often ineffective and short-lived, and we don’t recommend it. The best protection against a kennel cough infection is a healthy, balanced immune system.

By Dr. Becker

Kennel cough, which is also called infectious tracheobronchitis or Bordetella, is a very common upper respiratory infection in dogs. The condition can be triggered by several different viruses and bacteria, but the most common trigger is the presence of both the parainfluenza virus and the bacteria called Bordetella bronchiseptica.

How Dogs Contract Kennel Cough

Kennel cough is highly contagious and can remain infective for 6 to 14 weeks after symptoms resolve. Both viral and bacterial causes of kennel cough are spread in the air by sneezing, coughing dogs.

Healthy dogs inhale the aerosolized respiratory secretions. If the functioning of an otherwise healthy dog's respiratory tract is compromised by stressors like travel, being housed in a crowded environment, cold temperatures, environmental pollutants like dust or cigarette smoke, or infectious viruses like the parainfluenza virus, reovirus, adenovirus, or the distemper virus, then Bordetella bronchiseptica — the chief infectious bacterial agent of kennel cough — can enter the respiratory tract.

Bordetella bacteria are usually accompanied by at least one other infectious agent, usually a virus. So kennel cough is actually multiple infections and not just a single infection. Most cases of kennel cough occur in dogs that spend time in crowded quarters with inadequate ventilation and lots of warm air. Good examples are boarding kennels, grooming shops, and animal shelters.

Symptoms of Kennel Cough

Generally speaking, if an otherwise healthy dog suddenly begins coughing, it's usually due to an infection in the form of some type of kennel cough, virus, bacteria, or a combination. A sudden dry hacking cough, sneezing, snorting, retching, gagging, or vomiting in response to very light pressure to the trachea, or a spasmodic cough when a dog is excited or exercising —– these are all common symptoms of kennel cough. A nasal discharge may be present, and sometimes there can also be fever.

Symptoms typically occur 2 to 14 days after exposure in mild cases of kennel cough. Dogs usually continue to eat and remain alert. When the condition is more serious, dogs can become lethargic. They can lose their appetite. Pneumonia can develop. And in the worst case scenario, death can occur.

Severe cases of kennel cough primarily occur in immunocompromised dogs or in very young puppies. It's rare to lose a dog with a competent immune system to kennel cough.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Diagnosis is made by observing one or more of the symptoms listed above, often coupled with a history of the dog having spent time at a boarding facility, puppy mill or shelter. Bacterial cultures, viral isolations, and bloodwork can be performed to identify the specific pathogens causing the exact type of kennel cough the dog has. Some vets take x-rays, which can show bronchitis.

Kennel cough symptoms usually last between 10 and 20 days and can recur during periods of stress. Most cases resolve without medical intervention, so I don't automatically recommended treatment. And certainly, antibiotics are not immediately warranted. I always prefer to let a dog's body heal itself naturally.

Complete recovery from kennel cough can take up to three weeks in healthy dogs, and twice as long in older patients or in dogs with underlying immunosuppressive conditions. Puppies can also take a bit longer to recover. Since a serious episode of kennel cough can result in pneumonia, if your dog doesn't start to improve on her own within about a week, or if the cough becomes progressively worse, it's important to make an appointment with your vet to be on the safe side.

I also recommend seeing a vet if you have a puppy with symptoms that go beyond the typical symptoms of kennel cough. Let's say you have a puppy who all of a sudden has a change in breathing patterns, has difficulty breathing, stops eating or has a markedly diminished energy level — these are all signs you should visit your vet.

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Extra Help for Dogs with Kennel Cough

Dogs with kennel cough often have very sensitive tracheas, so a collar can trigger an episode of coughing. If you believe your pet could have kennel cough, I recommend you use a true harness rather than a collar to take all the pressure off the trachea. A dog with kennel cough should not be pulled around or led by the neck under any circumstances in order to prevent a significant worsening of the bouts of coughing.

You might also try humidifying the air, if you believe your pet has kennel cough, as moisture in the environment can help reduce or alleviate coughing spells. Safe remedies for active infection include homeopathic kennel cough nosodes.

With the guidance of your holistic vet, you can also consider using echinacea, vitamin C, and the herbs astragalus and olive leaf. I also recommend slippery elm and raw honey, which both help to reduce the incidence of coughing. You can also consider diffusing therapeutic antiviral essential oils. As always, you should talk to your holistic vet about what natural remedies you're interested in using, as well as the doses that are most appropriate for your pet.

Bordetella Vaccines

Many veterinarians recommend Bordetella vaccines. I don't.

And many boarding facilities, kennels, doggy daycares, groomers, and even some veterinarians require dogs be vaccinated for kennel cough. Please understand the only reason these institutions demand your pet be vaccinated is to remove liability from themselves. They're just bouncing liability away from their businesses by requiring your pet be vaccinated for kennel cough. The fact is the Bordetella vaccines are, for the most part, totally useless. They won't prevent your dog or any dog from acquiring kennel cough.

As I discussed earlier, kennel cough is most often a complex cocktail of different infections and not just a single infection. Because it's caused by a variety of different bacterial and viral agents, there's no one single vaccine that can provide protection for all of those different infectious agents.

Not only that, but whatever protection the vaccine might offer wears off very quickly, usually in less than a year, which means your pet will need to be revaccinated at least annually if you patronize pet care businesses that demand the vaccine.

On occasion, I am forced to give the Bordetella vaccine for clients who must leave their pets at a boarding facility that requires it. I always use the intranasal vaccine, which is basically a nose drop. It is significantly less toxic than the adjuvanted injectable vaccines, which I believe should never be used.

If for some reason you must vaccinate with the injectable Bordetella vaccine, I recommend you consult your holistic vet about detox options. The important thing to remember is that your dog can still get kennel cough even if he or she has been recently vaccinated. So I strongly recommend that you avoid this unnecessary and frequently ineffective vaccine if at all possible.

I do recommend that you focus on keeping your pet's immune system strong and vibrant, which is really the very best defense against kennel cough.