Kennel Cough

Infectious Tracheobronchitis (Kennel Cough)

By Dr. Karen Burgess

What is infectious tracheobronchitis?
Infectious tracheobronchitis is often also referred to as kennel cough. The trachea or windpipe is the major airway that divides into smaller bronchi in the lungs. Finally bronchi become bronchioles and alveoli where oxygen is ultimately exchanged with red blood cells in blood circulating through the body. A variety of bacteria and viruses (likely more than fifteen) are capable of causing inflammation in the trachea and bronchi thus leading to a typical dry hacking cough. While often described as one disease, kennel cough is actually a generalization that would be similar to a person saying they have a cold or the flu but not knowing the specific causative virus or bacteria. Kennel cough is considered highly contagious from dog to dog.

What are symptoms of kennel cough?
Kennel cough is notorious for causing a dry hacking, non-productive, or honking cough that is easily exacerbated by excitement, exercise, or pressure on the neck/trachea. Owners will often note that coughing is worse after barking or pulling on a collar. Dogs with uncomplicated kennel cough do not show signs of general illness and are typically eating, drinking, and active. Symptoms may only last for days or a mild cough may be present for weeks after infection. If a pet is acting sick in any way other than a cough the problem may be more serious than kennel cough.

How is kennel cough spread?
Kennel cough is easily spread to healthy dogs from aerosolized cough droplets originating from an infected dog. Objects such as toys and food bowls can also be methods of transmission. Symptoms can develop anywhere from two days to two weeks after exposure. Large numbers of dog in small confines with poor ventilation all contribute to risk. Dogs that have had kennel cough can technically be contagious for two to three months after exposure. Some dogs may not even show signs themselves of infection but still be able to spread the disease to other dogs.

What is the significance of a kennel cough?
Kennel cough is typically more of an inconvenience than a true medical problem. Sleep for the pet and owner may be interrupted and severe cases. Very young, very old, or immunocompromised dogs may be more prone to developing pneumonia from kennel cough. The contagious nature of kennel cough requires infected dogs to be confined even after symptom free for some time. Kennel cough is a not uncommon risk to boarding or exposing dogs to group situations.

How is kennel cough diagnosed?
Kennel cough is typically diagnosed by physical examination and review of patient history (recent exposure to other dogs, no other signs of illness). Testing for the specific bacteria or virus responsible for an infection is typically not warranted and tests available are limited. In some cases radiographs of the lungs may be recommended to help rule out other possible causes of a cough.

How is kennel cough typically treated?
Assuming no other symptoms are present, supportive care and time are often the only treatment required. Rest, avoiding irritation of the trachea (ex. using a harness), and monitoring appetite are all recommended. If the cough is such that it is keeping an owner or pet from sleeping through the night a cough suppressant may be recommended. In some cases a course of antibiotics may be recommended, although this will not help if the original problem is viral in nature.

Can kennel cough be prevented?
Vaccination for distemper, adenovirus, Bordetella, and Parainfluenza (all potential causes of kennel cough) are available. Distemper and adenovirus are core vaccinations recommended for all dogs and typically given as a puppy and adult in combination with parvovirus. Bordetella and Parainfluenza are non-core vaccinations recommended only for dogs considered at increased risk for exposure to kennel cough. Vaccination is available in both an intranasal and injectable formulation, however the intranasal is thought to be slightly more effective. Surfaces exposed to kennel cough should be disinfecte with dilute bleach.

Can a dog get kennel cough even if they are vaccinated?
It is important to note that no vaccine is 100% effective against kennel cough and that if a vaccinated pet develops the disease this does not mean that the vaccine was “bad” or a place of business where exposure occurred “dirty”. It just means that similar to the human flu vaccination, the vaccine was not effective against the particular disease strain a dog was exposed to. In some cases vaccination will not prevent the disease 100% but shorten its course or lessen the severity of symptoms. The most effective way to prevent kennel cough is to not expose a dog to any other dogs.