Kennel Cough – Myths and Facts

During summer and the Christmas holidays, we sometimes see an increase in the number of dogs contracting “kennel cough,” which we in the vet field refer to as “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex” (you know we can’t keep things simple!). I’ve answered a lot of questions about coughing dogs lately, and have found there are three main misconceptions about this disease.

Myth – Since my dog had his bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine, he cannot get kennel cough.
Fact – The bordetella vaccine protects against one bacteria…..Bordetella bronchiseptica. Thing is, there are a variety of other infectious agents that can cause kennel cough in dogs besides just Bordetella – both viruses and bacteria! Bordetella often is implicated because, even when it is not the primary cause, it can act as a complicating factor in respiratory disease (ie – making sick dogs sicker). So while the bordetella vaccine may not prevent your dog from getting the disease, it can prevent them from getting it very bad. The better protection your dog has from kennel cough is actually an acquired immunity from having had the disease and successfully fighting it off! So dogs who got kennel cough this go-round are less likely to get it next time (looking for a silver lining here!).
Here’s an example – years ago a friend brought a dog with kennel cough over to my house (yes, we’re still friends). I had 3 dogs, two of which were elderly and I did not keep current on bordatella vaccinations. My third, younger dog was current on his bordatella vaccine. Guess which dog got sick? The young one who was vaccinated against bordatella! The older guys had probably been exposed numerous times during my years of fostering rescue dogs, and never got sick. Go figure.

brown and white dogs

Kennel cough is easily passed between dogs who hang out together

Myth – If my dog got kennel cough after boarding, it must mean the kennel is dirty, or did something wrong.
Fact – The spread of kennel cough does not directly reflect the kennel’s cleanliness.
Kennel cough is an airborne disease, like our common cold. It can spread up to 12 feet in every direction from a single cough! Therefore, even kennels who clean and disinfect very regularly cannot prevent dogs from breathing air. That said, the various viruses or bacteria that cause kennel cough can lurk on cage doors, walls, water bowls, etc. They are most commonly transmitted via nose-to-nose contact, which we know happens a lot when there are many dogs in one place! So, routine cleaning and disinfecting will help stem the spread of the disease, although it won’t stop it completely from spreading. Kudos to the facilities who care enough to close temporarily (and lose money!) to clean, disinfect, and ventilate their facility to try to keep more dogs from getting sick.

Myth – All dogs with kennel cough must be treated with antibiotics.
Fact – Most of the the time, kennel cough goes away on its own, no antibiotics needed. Again, it’s similar to us having a cold. Like our common cold, most people are uncomfortable, manage the symptoms, and feel better in a week, no antibiotics needed. However, some people have a cold that turns into something more complicated (like a sinus infection in humans). While most dogs cough for a week and get better, some can’t seem to quite get over it and require antibiotics. Particularly if your dog has a fever, or has other complicating factors (such as other lung disease, a bad heart, is undergoing chemotherapy, etc), antibiotics might be needed. This is a decision for your veterinarian to make on a case-by-case basis.

Bottom line – if your dog gets kennel cough, it sucks, but it is not the end of the world. However, if your dog is elderly, or has other health problems, it might be best to avoid boarding kennels, dog parks, etc until the spread of this disease calms down.

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Posted in Internal Medicine, Myths & Hot Topics, Vaccines.

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