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Cornell Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center

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The risks of kennel cough

Highly social dogs benefit from vaccination

The basics

  • Kennel cough is the most common cause of canine upper respiratory tract disease
  • Like a human flu shot, the vaccine protects and lessens severity
  • You will hear a “honking” cough — dry, harsh and non-productive
  • Your dog might also be lethargic and eating poorly
  • There may or may not be nasal discharge
  • It can develop into pneumonia
  • Kennel cough spreads easily
  • Anti-tussives can help the dog rest

Prevention, exposure and recovery

Kennel cough, also known as canine infectious respiratory disease (CIRD), is a collection of diseases that includes pathogens like bordetella bronchiseptica, parainfluenza virus, herpesvirus, adenovirus and mycoplasma.

It’s associated with close-contact situations such as grooming facilities, animal shelters, competitions and parks. Transmission occurs via droplets released when dogs sneeze or cough, dog-to-dog contact and through contaminated items (door handles, food and water bowls). Typically, the incubation period lasts 2-10 days.

Normally, diagnosis is made with a physical exam and a history of exposure. While tests can identify each possible pathogen, unless something serious is suspected (such as distemper), a specific diagnosis is usually not pursued.

Most cases of kennel cough are caused by viral illnesses, so antibiotics are not warranted. However, in cases where the risk of secondary bacterial infection is high, such as shelter situations, antibiotics may be prescribed. The antibiotic of choice is doxycycline.

In cases where the coughing prevents rest, anti-tussives — such as hydrocodone, butorphanol or codeine — may be prescribed. Anti-inflammatories such as steroids and non-steroidals have been used in the past, but they do not shorten the course of disease, so their usage provides questionable benefit.

Usually the dog will recover within two weeks. In severe cases, however, pneumonia can develop and possibly become severe. Symptoms include labored breathing, a moist cough, high fever and nasal discharge. If pneumonia develops, more aggressive treatment is needed. This can sometimes include hospitalization for IV-provided antibiotics, oxygen therapy and fluids.

Vaccination is critical for prevention, and the vaccines are safe for puppies. Much like the flu virus in humans, a vaccine doesn’t prevent infection. Instead, it can lessen the severity of symptoms (such as the development of pneumonia) and the need for more aggressive, emergency care.

Bordetella bronchiseptica is a lifestyle vaccine available for dogs at least 12 weeks old. It is recommended for dogs that board, visit the grooming salon or play at dog parks. Not every dog may need this vaccine, so you should discuss it with your veterinarian.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.