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Our dogs can't tell us when they're sick, when they're in pain, or when they're uncomfortable, which leaves us pet owners to navigate the murky waters of our pets' symptoms on our own. This can send us scrambling to the vet (or internet) over symptoms we wouldn't think twice about in ourselves — symptoms like sneezing and coughing. And it can leave us to live in fear of often whispered about animal ailments like kennel cough

So, when is a cough just a cough, when is it kennel cough, and when is it cause for concern? Learn what causes this canine condition, how to recognize the symptoms, and when to see your vet. 

What Is Kennel Cough

Kennel cough: sick dog lying on a couch, under a blanket

Kennel cough, also called canine infectious tracheobronchitis or canine infectious respiratory disease (CIRD), is inflammation of the respiratory tract that leads to coughing. It's often a secondary infection — first your dog will get a primary infection like a virus or a bacterial infection, and that will lead to kennel cough.

Infectious tracheobronchitis is usually mild and will clear up on its own. But, in young puppies, older dogs, and dogs with weakened immune systems, it can lead to a life-threatening case of pneumonia. If you have a puppy, older dog, or dog with a chronic illness, and they develop a cough accompanied by labored breathing, contact your vet immediately. 

What Causes Kennel Cough?

There are many common illnesses and infectious agents that can cause kennel cough. But, we have vaccines for some of the most common causes, including: 

If your dog is up-to-date on their annual vaccines, they should already be inoculated against the first four viruses. The Bordetella vaccine is optional. It's an intranasal vaccine, so if your pup got it at their annual appointment, you probably saw your vet squirt it up your dog's nose. 

Bordetella bronchiseptica is the most common cause of kennel cough, so this vaccine can be instrumental in protecting your dog from this condition. Many boarding facilities will require your dog to have the Bordetella vaccine before your pet can stay there. 

Even if your dog has had all five of these vaccines, they can still get kennel cough. Many other pathogens can cause this condition, including canine herpesvirus and canine respiratory coronavirus. Not to be confused with COVID-19, canine coronavirus is a common respiratory infection in dogs, similar to the common cold in humans. 

However, COVID-19 did affect the number of kennel cough cases in dogs — with cases decreasing as a result of social distancing and increasing to even higher than pre-COVID numbers after social distancing ended. 

Veterinarians speculate that this outbreak came about because many dogs missed their annual vaccines when veterinary care became harder to access during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines may not fully prevent kennel cough, but they significantly decrease your dog's chances of contracting it. 

What Are the Risk Factors? 

Kennel cough: person watching different dogs playing in the park

Because kennel cough is highly contagious, it can spread anywhere that our pets might come into direct contact with infected dogs. These places include: 

  • Dog parks 
  • Dog shows 
  • Doggie daycares 
  • Boarding kennels
  • Animal shelters

If your dog shares water or food bowls with dogs from another household, this can also increase their risk of transmission. 

Because dogs are social animals, activities like visiting the dog park or having puppy playdates are important for their mental wellness. Instead of avoiding these outings entirely, protect your pet by keeping them up-to-date on their vaccines, and boost their immune system with a probiotic supplement and snacks of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies. 

If your dog develops a cough, protect the other animals in your community by keeping your pet away from areas with other dogs until two weeks after their symptoms have cleared up. 

What Are the Symptoms? 

The symptoms of kennel cough include: 

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing 
  • Runny nose 
  • Runny eyes
  • Nasal discharge
  • ​Fever 

In mild cases, a cough is often the only symptom. Your dog may otherwise appear fine, with normal energy levels and their typical tail-wagging attitude. Kennel cough often sounds like gagging, retching, or honking. In more severe cases, you may notice a cracking sound when your dog inhales and a wheezing sound when they exhale. The cough often gets worse with cold temperatures or exercise. 

What Are the Treatment Options?

Sick dog lying down, wrapped in a blanket

If you think your dog has kennel cough, you shouldn't rush to your vet's office. Start with a phone call. 

Kennel cough typically clears up on its own. Plus, it's highly contagious, so your vet may recommend your pet recovers at home rather than risk infecting other pets by coming to the office — especially because the other dogs at a vet's office are more likely to have weakened immune systems

Talking to Your Vet

Make a list of your pet's symptoms before you call your vet. And when you talk to front-desk staff, mention any pre-existing conditions. Even if your vet knows your pet well, they may not have your dog's file in front of them. The more information you can provide, the better. Let your vet know how long your dog has had the cough, and make sure to mention any more serious symptoms, including lethargy, fever, difficulty breathing, vomiting, or diarrhea. 

If your doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) suspects a serious case of kennel cough or a serious underlying condition, they may ask you to come into the office. Your vet may take X-rays of your dog's chest and trachea to look for signs of chronic bronchitis and other respiratory diseases

If the kennel cough was caused by a bacterial infection, your vet may also want to treat the underlying infection. Or, they may prescribe cough suppressants to give your dog's respiratory tract time to heal from the inflammation. 

Treating Kennel Cough at Home 

If your vet recommends your dog heal at home, there are a few things you can do to help reduce their symptoms and make them feel more comfortable. Start by making sure your dog has plenty of opportunity to rest. 

Reduce the time and intensity of their daily exercise until after their symptoms subside. It may be difficult to cut out exercise completely if your dog only has a mild case of kennel cough and their energy levels have remained high. But, try not to let your pet overdo it. 

For example, if you usually take your dog for a 30-minute jog, try a slow, 20-minute walk instead. Avoid contact with other dogs during walks or bathroom breaks, and consider using a harness instead of attaching a leash to their collar to avoid putting extra pressure on their windpipe.

Because cold weather can exacerbate kennel cough, keep your dog warm. You can also help ease their hacking cough with steam. Have your dog sit in the bathroom and inhale the steam as you run a hot shower. 

It usually takes 2-3 days for kennel cough's more serious bronchitis symptoms to pass, but the cough can linger for 2-3 more weeks. Your dog may still be contagious for up to two weeks after their symptoms resolve, so don't take them to the dog park or other highly trafficked dog areas until they have been cough-free for two full weeks.  

Kick Kennel Cough to the Curb 

Person hugging her dog

The hacking and gagging sounds that accompany kennel cough can be scary, but this common canine complaint is usually mild and clears up on its own. But, it is highly contagious. If you notice your dog coughing, you shouldn't take them to any popular dog areas. 

Instead, stay home, call your vet, and explain your dog's symptoms. In most cases, your vet will recommend your dog recovers at home, and you won't need to make a trip to their office where you might put other dogs at risk. But if your dog has a weakened immune system or if you have a young puppy or an older dog, your vet may want them to come in for an exam. 

If your dog recovers at home, make sure they get plenty of rest in a warm, comfortable place. In a few weeks, they'll be cough-free and ready to join you on adventures again. 

For more information on your pet's health and wellness, check out the Native Pet blog.

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