My dog got the bordetella vaccine – how did he still get kennel cough?

With everyone going on vacation and boarding their dog, or dogs going to day care, or dog parks, or groomers, or just having neighbor dogs, we’re seeing one of the worst outbreaks of kennel cough I’ve seen in a while! Many of my patients who are coughing got the bordetella vaccine, so the question I’m always asked is: why did my dog get kennel cough if he got a vaccine for it? Here’s what you need to know.

What is kennel cough?
The fancy name is CIRD – Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease. There are many infectious agents that can cause kennel cough, and so it can present in a variety of ways. Some dogs get a real dry hack. Others are hacking up phlegm. And still other hardly ever cough, but get severe nasal discharge and sneezing. All are part of the CIRD. It causes inflammation in the trachea, resulting in a tickle in the throat, hence the cough.

What causes kennel cough?
The most common infectious agents to cause CIRD are bacteria called mycoplasma (couple different flavors) or bordetella,  and viruses like adenovirus, parainfluenza, or herpesvirus. Did one of these words look familiar…  Bordetella? Because that’s what the kennel cough vaccine is!

So why does the kennel cough vaccine suck?
The bordetella vaccine works great against the bordetella bacteria…. but doesn’t do a thing for the other agents, like the mycoplasmas or other viruses. And to make things more fun, kennel cough, or CIRD, are often mixed infections, meaning your dog has more than one infectious agent playing a role. The most common combinations involve at least one of the mycoplasmas, and then either parainfluenza or bordetella. So preventing the bordetella alone is a drop in the bucket. If a vaccine comes out that protects against the mycoplasmas AND kennel cough, then we’d have something!

dog panting

Photo by Михаил Ковалевский

But parainfluenza?
Nope, that’s not the dog flu. The flue is canine influenza, and parainfluenza is a whole nother beast. But guess what! Our distemper/parvo shot has parainfluenza in it! It’s just how it’s always been made, and it’s a nice little added protection for your dog! The main buggers with kennel cough are the mycoplasmas, and there’s no vaccine for those.

How is kennel cough spread?
All these viruses and bacteria spread through the air very easily. One cough can spread these infectious agents 10 feet! So your dog doesn’t have to have direct contact at all, but just being in the same room as a dog with kennel cough can give it to your dog. If the neighbor dog gets it and barks through the fence? Yep, your dog can get kennel cough without even leaving the yard!

Why did one of my dogs get it and not the other?
Every dog has a different immune system, just like people. Years ago, my mom’s dog regularly went to day care, and came over to play with my dogs, bringing kennel cough with her. I had three dogs, a young one who had the bordetella vaccine, and two old farts who didn’t. Guess which dog got kennel cough! Yep, the young, vaccinated dog had it so bad I actually had to put him on antibiotics! The other two I guess had been around the block, and their immune systems had seen it before.

How do you treat kennel cough?
The good news is, most dogs get over kennel cough with no treatment needed. It’s kinda like us having a cold. We manage the symptoms, and our immune system does its job. In dogs, we have a pill that is like a doggy robitussin that can help with the cough. If they have a fever, are lethargic, or have projectile green snot coming out, then we can do an antibiotic.

Can cats get kennel cough?
YES! It fortunately is not very common, but cats can get it. In them , it presents less like a cough and more of the sneezy, snotty stuff. They typically self-resolve, like dogs, thankfully.

What about the flu vaccine?
Dog flu, or canine influenza, also causes a cough. This comes with a high fever and a siiiiick dog. Think of influenza in people. We fortunately have not had canine influenza in our area. Many boarding and day care places have been requiring the flu shot just to be safe. Then, earlier this year (2023), all of the companies who make the canine influenza shots stopped making them. They claim they will start again next year, but my sales reps got annoyed and told me to stop asking so much or they won’t bring me donuts. Since this is the case with basically every vet clinic, many kennels and day cares are not requiring the flu shots. Your vet can simply write a letter saying your pet is exempt because no one is making the shot, and they are cool with it.

Posted in General health, Myths & Hot Topics, Vaccines.

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