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Kennel Cough: What the Hack?
July 17, 2017 (published)

dog in kennel Deposit Photo

Let’s lead with the important stuff: Your dog does not need to have been in a kennel to get kennel cough. To give you a little more information about it, and maybe dispel some myths we have a little Q&A about kennel cough, but feel free to ask more question in the comments section.

What is kennel cough? Kennel cough (or, more properly, canine infectious tracheobronchitis) is an infection that causes a persistent cough in dogs. The cough can last up to 3 weeks, which is annoying, I know. Sorry.

What causes kennel cough? Most often, it’s a bacterium known as Bordetella bronchiceptica. Sometimes it brings a few friends to the party in your dog’s trachea – viruses like parainfluenza or reovirus. Bordetella (the main culprit) is the main ingredient in the kennel cough vaccine that your dog may need before boarding. People often get the name “Bordetella” hilariously confused with “bordello,” which requires an entirely different sort of vaccine.

Then why is it called kennel cough if no darn kennel is required? I mean, really! Calm down, mate. You know how every once in while you’ll hear about a cruise ship where everyone gets sick? It’s like that, only minus the open bar and swimming pools. Gather any living beings in a smallish space, like a cruise ship or a dog kennel, and any infection moves through them like wildfire. Close quarters means close contact and lots of bacterial transmission from one person to another, or one dog to another. Which brings up an important point: if you have a normal immune system, you can’t get kennel cough from your dog. If you have a weakened immune system, talk to your doctor about the risks.

One cough from a kennel cough-infected dog sends thousands of little droplets into the air, each one carrying millions of bacteria waiting to infect the next dog. Because the chances of spreading the disease are higher in dog kennels (and, I guess, because people like alliteration) the name kennel cough stuck, but your dog can get it literally anywhere. “Literally anywhere cough” just doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi (which is French for “annoying cough that lasts 3 weeks”).

What are the symptoms of kennel cough? For most dogs, it’s an annoying, goose honk-like dry cough, which makes me wonder if geese ever get a dog cough. Ever had bronchitis and get that scratchy, never-ending cough, like your airways are full of steel wool? Or ever inhaled steel wool? Same thing for your pooch with kennel cough. Most dogs still carry on with normal doggy activities like eating, playing and licking of various bodily bits, they just cough while doing so.

And cough.

And cough.

And cough.

And then, for variety, they cough some more.

The cough is tiring, exhausting and annoying. For everyone. For you, for the cat, for your houseplants. I bet even your Amazon Echo is probably done with it at this point and is about to order your dog some Robitussin all on its own. (We are living in the future and it’s a scary place.)

Usually they don’t produce anything when they cough, or perhaps just a bit of white foam. If you see yellow goo in any of this, or they start to feel poorly, have trouble breathing, or go off their food, it’s time for a visit to your vet.

One note about actual dog kennels and kennel cough: if your dog picked up kennel cough at the dog kennel (or a vet hospital, or any other place), don’t go all rage-y on them. It’s not a die-hard sign of a bad place; it happens, and it’s inevitable wherever dogs gather. Vaccines, hygiene and good practices can decrease the chances that dogs will transmit it, but it’s always going to happen, so maybe hold off on that flaming Yelp review.

How bad is kennel cough? Usually – meh, not too bad. Sometimes: bad. Rarely:  RUN! 

Let’s unpack that a bit. You’ve had a cold, right? Makes you feel like poo, maybe miss a day of work. Most cases of kennel cough are like that: mild, self-limiting diseases that go away on their own without any need for medical intervention. But at some point in your life, you’ve probably had some demonic, wicked-evil cold that almost put you in the hospital, or maybe it did. Occasionally, kennel cough will do that – make dogs sicker than most, requiring a little time in the hospital. It’s a rarity, but it definitely happens. And you’ve probably heard of someone, usually either very young or very old, who’s unfortunately succumbed to pneumonia (since the trachea and lungs are connected, it’s easy for kennel cough to drop in on the lungs and cause pneumonia badness). Even rarer still, kennel cough can do that. It’s like three diseases in one.

There are a few types of dogs for whom the nasty version of kennel cough is way more likely, and may result in hospitalization or more serious illness (and, yes, I have lost a patient or two to kennel cough over the years).

  • Young dogs and puppies, especially ones with no vaccines
  • Older, debilitated dogs, or those with chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer
  • Snub-nosed (brachycephalic) dogs like bulldogs, pugs and Pekingese.

For that last group, kennel cough is their Kryptonite. Kennel cough can be deadly for any dog with a smooshed-in face, so take note and watch them closely. Mother Nature, with help from humans, did a poor job of designing their breathing apparatus, so any condition that affects it, such as kennel cough, can go from zero to deadly in nothing flat.

How do you treat kennel cough? For the three versions of kennel cough I listed above – meh, bad and ☠ RUN! – treatment can vary quite a bit. For the meh version, you can usually just ride it out. Antibiotics can shorten the course a bit in some cases, so they are often prescribed, but may not be entirely necessary. What with the global crisis regarding antibiotic overuse, not prescribing antibiotics may be the smartest way to go. In some cases, anti-inflammatories, cough suppressants or other meds may be prescribed. Your vet might guide you to an over-the-counter human cough suppressant, but don’t go using one for your dog on your own – pick the wrong one and you could make things far worse than a little cough. Mild kennel cough is usually a waiting game, like you with your cold. Making sure your dog is still eating, drinking and acting normally are important.

For the bad and  RUN! versions, hospitalization, IV fluids, oxygen and antibiotics may all be needed, or even more based on severity. A lot depends on if there’s any difficulty breathing or if kennel cough has developed into pneumonia. Antibiotics may be needed for several weeks, and follow up vet visits for X-rays may also be needed.

I hope that’s informative and helps you understand kennel cough a bit more. I’d write a few more questions and answers, but I see I’m out of time – I have to go get my bordello vaccine. It’s going to be a great weekend!

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