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Recognizing and Responding to Kennel Cough Symptoms

One of the classic kennel cough symptoms is a honking cough. While most cases of kennel cough resolve on their own, professional treatment may be needed.

Recognizing and Responding to Kennel Cough Symptoms

One of the classic kennel cough symptoms is a honking cough. While most cases of kennel cough resolve on their own, professional treatment may be needed.

It can be a scary moment for a pet owner: Your dog descends into a fit of coughing, but it doesn't sound like a normal cough. It's a kind of honking sound, almost like a goose. 

What's behind this honking cough? This is the telltale sign of kennel cough, known medically as canine infectious tracheobronchitis. Kennel cough is relatively common in our canine friends and in most cases is not a serious health issue, as scary as it may sound. However, it is highly contagious. 

What causes this respiratory infection? Are there other kennel cough symptoms? And, most importantly, how can you treat and prevent kennel cough?

Let's take a closer look at kennel cough in dogs so you can learn how to keep your pet happy and healthy. 

What Causes Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough can be caused by a variety of viruses and bacteria. Examples include the canine parainfluenza virus, canine adenovirus type-2, canine coronavirus (a general cold), and a bacteria known as Bordetella bronchiseptica. Sometimes, two or more of these infectious agents can affect a dog at the same time. That's why kennel cough is often referred to as Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex, or CIRDC. 

Dogs contract kennel cough through direct contact with other dogs or infected materials. The illness is very contagious — a dog could pick it up while playing with another dog at the dog park or simply by drinking from a shared water dish. 

Crowded conditions make the spread of kennel cough even more likely. That's where kennel cough gets its name. The infection spreads easily through boarding kennels, grooming facilities, or doggie daycares, for example. Transmission is even more likely if a facility has poor ventilation and inadequate airflow.

Other factors that may increase the likelihood of contracting kennel cough include cold temperatures, exposure to cigarette smoke or dust, and stress.

What Are the Symptoms of Kennel Cough?

kennel cough symptoms: dog on a couch looking at the camera

You're already aware of the primary kennel cough symptom: a hacking cough. This happens because the infection inflames your dog's trachea and bronchioles (tiny air passages in the lungs), resulting in a signature dry, honking cough. 

In many cases, the cough is the only symptom a dog with kennel cough displays. However, it's possible for other symptoms to occur, too. They include:

  • Runny nose and watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Wheezing or labored breathing
  • Retching
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Fever

Kennel cough symptoms are more dangerous to some dogs than others. A healthy adult dog will most likely recover from kennel cough on their own, the same way we might recover from the common cold. But other dogs aren't so lucky.

Older dogs with decreased immune system defenses, or dogs with pre-existing respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis, respiratory allergies, or tracheal collapse, are at a higher risk of complications from kennel cough. Young puppies are at risk because of their underdeveloped immune systems, especially if they haven't received all of their vaccinations yet. And pregnant mother dogs are at a higher risk, too. 

Dogs suffering from cases of kennel cough that don't go away on their own are at risk for life-threatening pneumonia. These pets will need close monitoring and treatment from a DVM (Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine), otherwise known as your veterinarian. 

How Is Kennel Cough Treated?

As mentioned above, kennel cough often goes away on its own, much like the common cold for humans. It's likely that your dog won't need any treatment at all. Still, it's always a good idea to see your veterinarian if you spot any kennel cough symptoms. 

Treatment for kennel cough will vary depending on the case and whether it's considered mild or severe. 

Mild Cases

Mild cases will be handled with a focus on supportive care. Your vet may prescribe a cough suppressant to help reduce the frequency and severity of your dog's cough. Anti-inflammatory medications may also be prescribed. If your dog's case of kennel cough is caused by the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria, antibiotics can help fight the pathogen. 

You'll probably need to make sure your dog gets plenty of rest. Keep walks short, and prevent your dog from running and playing vigorously. This gives Fido's immune system time to fight off the infection, and it lets the windpipe and respiratory tract recover from the coughing. It will also be important to keep your dog hydrated with plenty of fresh water. You can also try adding some dog-safe bone broth to your dog's meals to add a little extra moisture and nutrition. Native Pet's Bone Broth Topper is a great choice. 

You might also consider setting up a small humidifier near your dog while they're resting. This will moisten the air they breathe, which can help soothe the respiratory tract and keep coughing to a minimum. 

Serious Cases

If severe kennel cough symptoms like lethargy, retching, breathing trouble, or loss of appetite are present, more hands-on treatment at the vet's office will be required. An extended hospital stay, intravenous fluid therapy, and oxygen supplementation may be needed. Antibiotics to fight off secondary infections (infections that affect your dog in addition to the original infectious agent that caused kennel cough) are sometimes prescribed. Cough suppressants and anti-inflammatories will probably be administered as well.

Most dogs take between one and three weeks or so to recover from a mild case of kennel cough, and even longer (up to six weeks or so) in severe cases. Keep in mind, however, that mild clinical signs (coughing, primarily) can linger for several weeks after the infectious agent has been eliminated. 

Can Kennel Cough Be Prevented?

beagle looking at a syringe

While kennel cough can't necessarily be prevented in every case, there are steps that pet owners can take to make it far less likely. Your dog will typically be vaccinated against some of the common pathogens that cause kennel cough, like adenovirus and canine influenza. These are usually given when your dog is still a puppy, along with other core vaccines like the canine distemper virus vaccine.

There is also the Bordetella vaccine. It's not given to every dog, but it’s often recommended for dogs who are commonly boarded or groomed. It's also a good idea for dogs who will frequently interact with other dogs, whether it's at a doggie daycare, dog parks, or dog shows. 

The Bordetella vaccine can be given by injection like other vaccinations, or it can be administered via intra-nasal drop.

What Do I Do if I Spot Kennel Cough Symptoms?

If you spot the telltale sign of kennel cough — a dry, hacking, honking cough that almost sounds like a goose honk — or other kennel cough symptoms like sneezing or minor nasal discharge, you'll want to let your vet know.

Most of the time, cases of kennel cough are mild and your dog will recover on their own. You should still check with your vet, as they can prescribe cough suppressants and offer advice on keeping your dog comfortable as he or she recovers. 

If you see more severe kennel cough symptoms like loss of appetite, retching, lethargy, or labored breathing, your dog may need urgent veterinary attention. Take your infected dog to the vet's office for help. An extended hospital stay with close professional monitoring might be necessary. 

If your dog commonly spends time around other dogs, especially in a crowded facility like a daycare, groomer's office, animal shelter, or boarding kennel, it's worth asking your veterinarian about the Bordetella vaccine. You should also check that your dog has been vaccinated against other common causes of kennel cough, like adenovirus and parainfluenza. These vaccines make it far less likely that your dog will contract a case of kennel cough. 

For more insights into your dog's health and wellness, visit the Native Pet blog.

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