Kennel cough, an infectious canine cough caused by either a virus or a bacteria, is a term familiar to most dog lovers.
Folks coined the name “kennel cough” because dogs are most susceptible to contracting this infectious cough in a high-stress, densely populated canine environment — such as a dog kennel. Today, kennel cough falls under the umbrella name of canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC).
Many folks hear “kennel cough” and believe their dog will never get this annoying cough if they never go near a kennel.
This is not true. Dogs can contract an infectious cough almost anywhere, although exposure to another dog with an infectious cough is the most likely and obvious way your dog will contract this cough.
How Is Kennel Cough Contracted?
Dog-to-dog contact is the most common mode of transmission. Here are some places your dog might contract kennel cough:
- Pet shops
- Pet food stores
- Boarding kennels
- Grooming and daycare facilities
- Dog parks
- Canine sporting or showing events
- Veterinary hospitals
Your dog catching kennel cough is similar to how little kids contract cold after cold in school, daycare, playgrounds or the pediatrician’s office.
The cough can also be spread in the air and environment. A dog can contract a cough from aerosolized secretions and surfaces. Think of the common cold again. You just don’t always know where you got that annoying respiratory sneeze, runny nose or cough.
Symptoms of Kennel Cough
A honking cough is the most obvious sign of kennel cough. Other symptoms you may see include:
- A cough that sounds like the dog has something caught in their throat
- Sneezing or a runny nose
- Runny eyes
- A gagging, retching cough that might be misinterpreted as an attempt to vomit
Although most dogs remain bright and alert, some can certainly become lethargic or lose their appetite if they’ve been up all night coughing, heaving, retching or running a low-grade fever.
In the veterinary exam, a telltale sign that we have a kennel cough problem is an easily induced cough. By gently palpating my patient’s trachea, I can usually make the dog with kennel cough start coughing right away, and the client invariably says, “That’s it!”
Although kennel cough is not considered a very serious disease, it can be worrisome or get very serious in certain cases.
Puppies are more susceptible to kennel cough. They are often not vaccinated and have immature immune systems. Tiny puppies are at risk for developing serious upper respiratory signs and/or pneumonia. Puppies housed in pet stores or puppies being transported are more susceptible to kennel cough.
Unvaccinated dogs are, of course, more susceptible to kennel cough and can develop a more severe cough of longer duration compared with their vaccinated counterparts.
Brachycephalic dogs, older dogs and dogs with other respiratory diseases can become sicker if they contract kennel cough.
Treatment of Kennel Cough
To treat or not to treat? That is the question.
When you get a cold, you realize it is self-limiting, probably reach for over-the-counter (OTC) remedies for symptomatic relief when necessary and go to the doctor only when it’s not going away and the symptoms are worsening.
Kennel cough follows a similar path.
Many “self-limiting” cases of kennel cough last for about a week. People often call the vet and describe a mild to moderate cough that happens 3 to 4 times a day, and their vet will suggest that the symptoms sound like kennel cough.
If the client isn’t overly concerned and the patient is happily running around and not terribly bothered by this cough, many vets will say an appointment isn’t absolutely necessary unless symptoms become worse or prolonged.
A client calls the vet and describes a honking cough that’s been going on for several days and seems to be getting worse. They might even hold the phone up to their dog so I can hear the foghorn blasting away!
The client sounds concerned, and the dog clearly has a more serious case of kennel cough. Although this cough might still go away in a few more days, this pup should most definitely come in to the vet and get some help.
What You Can Do at Home Before Going to the Vet
Your vet may suggest OTC cough suppressants. You can use a product like Robitussin DM for 1–2 days and see if it helps.
Ask your vet for specific dosing instructions and even a written prescription to show the pharmacist. I’ve had lots of clients go to the drugstore, get confused by the 50 different cough medications on the shelf and pick the wrong one.
Know that it’s controversial whether OTC cough suppressants really work or not.
Lifestyle changes can help reduce coughing.
- Try to remove any barking triggers — barking and excitement make the cough worse. Limiting exercise and excessive play for a week can help. If the mailman triggers your dog to bark or you have one of those couch surfers who stands on the cushions and barks at kids on bicycles, remove these triggers.
- Exchange your leash for a harness until the cough goes away. Anything that pulls on your dog’s throat (trachea) can start or aggravate the coughing. Since your dog is contagious at this point in the kennel cough cycle, curtail leash walks completely if at all possible so your dog does not pull on its throat and you’re not exposing other dogs to your little coughing machine.
- Respiratory irritants, such as cigarette smoke, should be avoided in the environment.
The Vet Visit for Kennel Cough
I see many cases of kennel cough. Here are a few scenarios.
- The cough is getting worse, is going on for more than several days or got better and came back (called refractory).
- The dog is “sick,” meaning lethargy, lack of appetite, etc.
- The client is very concerned and either the dog or the client can’t sleep at night.
- The patient might be more fragile than the average dog. Puppies, shelter adoptions, brachycephalic breeds, dogs with other respiratory diseases and dogs with other concurrent diseases can become very sick from kennel cough.
There is no simple “test” for kennel cough; treatment and diagnostics differ in every case. Your vet usually makes a tentative diagnoses based on observation, the history and an easily elicited cough on tracheal palpation.
The classic case is the dog who develops a cough after being boarded or being recently adopted from a shelter or pet store. We often don’t know whether we are treating a viral kennel cough, a bacterial kennel cough or a mixed infection.
Blood work, specific viral or bacterial testing, and/or X-rays are indicated for more complicated or refractory cases.
Listen to this dog’s honking kennel cough:
Medications for Kennel Cough
Here’s a list of drugs prescribed most frequently in cases of kennel cough:
Doxycyline is effective in lessening the cough and upper respiratory signs of bacterial kennel cough. Perhaps doxy helps viral kennel cough cases with anti-inflammatory effects.
Some dogs cannot tolerate doxycycline, and some cases of kennel cough respond to a different or additional antibiotic to treat the cough or pneumonia. Well-known antibiotics — such as Clavamox, the cephalosporins (Keflex), sulfa antibiotics or a fluoroquinolone, like ciprofloxacin — may help the coughing dog with a deep bacterial infection.
Veterinarians often prescribe cough suppressants with a small amount of narcotic in them for a more serious cough.
Some vets are becoming more reluctant to prescribe these or will give you a prescription to have filled elsewhere because of the opioid epidemic and problems associated with prescribing and keeping records of controlled substances.
This is a steroid, sometimes used as an anti-inflammatory for certain coughs. It is also in a combination veterinary drug used to suppress coughs called Temaril-P.
Whenever vets prescribe prednisone, it must be done with caution and a full knowledge of the patient’s health status. The use of prednisone is controversial, and it’s usually never used as a first-line drug for kennel cough.
A fairly new veterinary drug, Cerenia helps curtail vomiting and stop the symptoms of car sickness. It can also help dry up secretions in a coughing dog.
Some dogs with kennel cough have prolonged symptoms, particularly puppies or dogs who have been housed in shelters and may have had kennel cough for a long time, or if the cough is refractory.
If these cases don’t respond to the classic drug therapy, I will reach for Cerenia; it often helps a lot.
Prevention of Kennel Cough
The “kennel cough” vaccine (Bordetella) is safe and administered as an oral, intranasal or injectable vaccine that’s quite effective against one of the leading causes of bacterial kennel cough.
The DHLPP vaccine covers some of the viral causes of kennel cough. Even though a vaccinated dog can still contract a case of kennel cough, the symptoms and duration are usually much less severe than a kennel cough infection in an unvaccinated dog.
The take-home message is that kennel cough isn’t usually a serious disease, although it is annoying, contagious and can become serious in certain cases. Your vet can help your coughing dog if the cough doesn’t go away in a few days. You can do a lot to prevent it by simply keeping your dog up to date on the DHLPP and Bordetella vaccinations.
- Ford, R. B. Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat, 4th ed. Elsevier. 2012.
- Lappin, M. R., et al. “Antimicrobial Use Guidelines for Treatment of Respiratory Diseases in Dogs and Cats.” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 31, no. 2 (March 2017): 279–294.
- Lister, A. “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC).” Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference. 2015.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed March 19, 2019.