“Kennel Cough”

By Mary Lou Gerace

Years ago, if your dog came down with a “cough,” he was simply diagnosed with Kennel Cough.  Any upper respiratory problem in dogs was automatically put into that category.  Recently the ailment has been given a few new names.  Your dog’s coughing and hacking may now be diagnosed as “tracheobronchitis,” “canine infectious tracheobronchitis,” “Bordetellosis,” or “Bordetella.”  Whatever name the ailment is given, IT IS HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS in dogs!  It knows no geographic barrier and a vast number of dogs will, at one point or another, in their life become infected.

There are many different agents that contribute to the disease process.  The most common agents are parainfluenza, Bordetella bronciseptica and mycoplasma.  In addition, it is suggested that canine adenovirus, reovirus and the canine herpes virus also may contribute to the disease.  Even though any single of these organisms can produce symptoms of “kennel cough,” most cases are a direct result of more than one organism listed above.

The most common “virus” of kennel cough is the parainfluenza “virus.”  It will cause mild symptoms that last less than 6 days as long as there is no other bacterial involvement.  Unfortunately, that usually is NOT the case, as multiple bacteria is most often times present.  However, there is good news!  Most 5-way vaccines and 'kennel cough' vaccines offer some protection against this particular virus.

The most common “bacteria” isolated from the disease is the Bordetella Bronchisepticabacteria.” The clinical signs of this bacterial infection occur three to four days after exposure, and if uncomplicated with other agents, will last around 10 days. Be aware however, that after you dog is no longer showing any clinical signs,  he will continue to shed the bacteria to other susceptible dogs for as long as 6 to 14 weeks.  The intranasal kennel cough vaccine will protect your dog against this type of bacteria.  It is not unusual to see Parainfluenza and Bordetella together in infectious tracheobronchitis.   When both agents meet, they create a disease that normally lasts from 14-20 days.


By far, the most common symptom of Kennel Cough is a dry hacking cough!  It may be accompanied by “retching” or as some call it, “hacking” or “honking.”  Some dogs will experience a watery nasal discharge.  In mild cases, dogs will usually continue to eat, be alert and active.  Dogs that are “boarded” out where they are kept in confined quarters with other dogs have a higher incidence of contacting kennel cough.  Severe cases may see the symptoms progress.  If you see lethargy, fever, and inappetence, consult your vet immediately, as complications resulting in pneumonia could very well develop.  Severe cases have known to cause death.  The majority of the severe cases occur in immunocompromised animals, or young unvaccinated puppies.


Veterinarians typically diagnose Kennel Cough based on the reported history of symptoms and history of recent exposure to other dogs.   While bacterial cultures, viral isolation, and blood work can be performed to verify individual agents of the disease,  due to the characteristic nature of the symptoms, these tests are not usually performed.


In the uncomplicated form of the disease, antibiotics are NOT prescribed.  If the dog is alert, with a good appetite and only has the “cough,” the disease is sometimes left to simply “run-its-course” not unlike a human who has a cold.  Treating the mild case does not shorten the length of time the dog can spread the disease.  Occasionally, prednisone will be prescribed to reduce the severity and frequency of the cough.  It is also used to make the dog more comfortable.  Bronchodilators or cough suppressants may also be used.

A friend’s two dogs just went through a bout of Kennel Cough.  She found that soaking the kibble and hand feeding a little bit at a time seemed to help her dogs with swallowing and lessened the “coughing and hacking” during mealtime.  She also massaged their head, down the back of their neck, and between the shoulder blades.  She indicated this seemed to “relax” them more than anything.  She monitored their temperature, and kept an eye on their water intake to make sure they did not dehydrate.  She administered Children’s Musinex DM at the rate of 1 teaspoon 4 times per day. 

In more severe (complicated) cases where the animal is not eating, running a fever, or showing signs of pneumonia, antibiotics are often used. The most common ones are tetracycline or trimethoprim-sulfa.  There are however, many other choices available. Steroids or cough suppressants are not usually recommended because of the risk of immunosuppressive with steroids and the need to continue to clear extra fluid or mucous in pneumonia patients. Bronchodilators and aerosol therapy can be used. In moderate or severe cases, veterinary care should be instituted, as the resultant pneumonia could become life threatening if not treated properly and promptly.

Vaccination and prevention

The intranasal vaccine containing both parainfluenza and Bordetella is the best protection against Kennel Cough. Intranasal vaccines create localized immunity that greatly reduces the incidence of clinical signs and illness.   Be careful though, as some dogs will develop mild signs similar to tracheobronchitis when given this vaccine.  Symptoms could last several days.  Also, vaccinated dogs may “shed the virus” which in turn may cause other dogs to become mildly infected.  The “shedding” usually lasts less than 72 hours.

After your dog is vaccinated, it takes up to 4 days for dogs to develop protection.  Therefore, vaccinate AT LEAST 4 days prior to a dog show, boarding, etc.  Also, try to isolate your recently vaccinated dog from other dogs for that same time period.   This way you will protect your dog from becoming infected by other dogs, and protect those dogs from becoming infected by yours.




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