What is kennel cough in dogs?

If your dog has a persistent, hacking cough that sounds like they’re choking they may be suffering from kennel cough, also known as infectious tracheobronchitis. It results from inflammation of the throat, lungs and airways and is caused by various viruses and bacteria. While highly contagious, the condition is, in most cases, not serious and will improve on its own within a few weeks. There are exceptions to this, however, and owners of elderly dogs, puppies and dogs with underlying health issues should monitor the condition closely as it can develop into pneumonia.

Dog coughing suddenly

Most dogs will cough from time to time but if a cough comes on suddenly and is persistent or severe, you should contact your vet or, out of hours, your nearest Vets Now pet emergency service, as it may be related to something serious. For example, coughing is a common symptom of a collapsing windpipe as well as heart disease, chronic bronchitis and heartworm disease.

An image of a Dalmatian laying down looking unhappy and unwell for Vets Now article on kennel cough treatment
If your dog has a persistent cough they may be suffering from kennel cough

How do dogs catch kennel cough?

Dogs catch kennel cough through contact with another infected animal or by inhaling the spray of an infected dog’s cough. They can also catch it by eating and drinking from or even licking an infected bowl or toy.

What to do if your dog is showing symptoms?

Kennel cough in dogs is not normally life-threatening so, in most cases, emergency treatment is not required. But it can, occasionally, progress to something more serious so be sure to keep a close eye on your dog. Call your daytime vet for advice if you’re worried. You should always contact your vet or, out of hours, your nearest Vets Now pet emergency service, if your dog or puppy starts showing any of the more severe signs, such as fever, nasal discharge, lack of appetite or lethargy.

What causes kennel cough?

It involves a whole range of different viral and bacterial organisms. It’s common for dogs and puppies to be infected by more than one at the same time. The most common combination is parainfluenza or adenovirus type 2 with bordetella bronchiseptica. Dogs who are stressed, malnourished, regularly subjected to cigarette smoke and dust, or who are exposed to sudden but significant changes in temperature or humidity, are often more susceptible to the condition.

An image of a dog laying underneath a blanket looking unwell for Vets Now article on coughing in dogs
The condition involves a whole range of different viral and bacterial organisms

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How is it diagnosed?

There’s no specific test for kennel cough but you should get a fair idea of whether your dog has the illness from the symptoms they’re showing (persistent, forceful cough but otherwise active and normal). If your vet asks you to bring your dog into the clinic, it’s likely they will carry out a physical examination to try to rule out other potential causes of your dog’s cough. Tests, such as x-rays, ultrasound and blood tests, may be carried out if there are concerns over the severity of the infection.

Kennel cough treatment

As long as your dog is fed a healthy diet and living in an environment that’s clean, well ventilated and not too cold, they should recover from the condition within three weeks without veterinary treatment. In more serious cases, vets may prescribe cough suppressants and anti-inflammatories. Antibiotics will only ever be used if the infection is severe and is caused by a bacteria such as Bordetella bronchiseptica.

An image of a dog laying on the floor looking sad and unwell for Vets Now article on dog coughing
As long as your dog is well fed and looked after, they should recover from the illness

What is bordetella bronchiseptica?

Bordetella bronchiseptica is the bacteria that, more often than not, causes kennel cough in dogs. It can also infect cats, rabbits, and, in very rare cases, humans. All breeds of dogs are at risk from bordetella bronchiseptica, particularly those kept in close quarters such as boarding kennels or shelters, as it’s so contagious. Infected dogs can shed the bordetella organism for up to three months following infection.

How long does kennel cough last?

The incubation period for the illness — that’s the time from the moment of exposure to signs of it appearing — can be anything from two days to two weeks and dogs are typically sick for between one and three weeks. But symptoms can sometimes linger for up to six weeks.

Prevention advice

There is a vaccination but it isn’t included in the routine vaccines your dog gets as a puppy or in their regular booster shots. You should speak to your daytime vet about whether you need to safeguard your dog from the illness and about the vaccine cost. It may be required if your dog is due to stay in kennels. Other prevention advice is based mainly on common sense. For example, owners should ensure their dogs live in a low-stress environment that’s comfortable and well ventilated and are fed a high-quality balanced diet.