One of my favorite sayings is “Common things are common.”

For a healthy pet that suddenly develops symptoms there’s often a simple explanation.

  • Itchy dogs and cats…fleas
  • Vomiting dogs…garbage gut
  • Coughing dog…kennel cough

Kennel cough…there, I’ve said it, even though those two words don’t mean much. You see, ‘kennel cough’ is an umbrella or catch-all term for of a cough of suspected infectious origin. 

How much do you know about this common condition?

#1: What’s in a Name?

The term kennel cough comes about because it’s common in …ahem…kennels. This is because when a lot of dogs share the same air space it’s a great way to pass bugs around.

In people terms think subway or a cruise ship…all great places for someone to cough and deposit viral droplets on a door handle, ready for the next person to touch.

The same goes for dogs. So those that share toys at doggy daycare, or airspace at a kennels are more likely to pick up cough-bugs.

#2: Kennel Cough is Unfair to Kennels

That sad, to label the infection as ‘kennel cough’ is a bit unfair on the kennels. Many infectious coughs are spread by droplets containing the virus particles. When a dog coughs, these droplets can land on a toy, bowl, or even a rock. All it takes is for a dog to come along and sniff or lick that infected droplet to be at risk of picking up the bug.

Yes, it’s true that dogs in group situations are at greater risk of spreading infection. However, dog parks or even doggy-play days are just as much of a risk. So perhaps the term “Contagious Cough” is more appropriate.

#3: The Root Cause of Contagious Coughs

There are a number of usual culprits when it comes to the causes of contagious coughs.  Topping the polls are:

  • Canine parainfluenza virus
  • Canine respiratory coronavirus
  • Canine adenovirus
  • Bordetella bronchiseptica
  • Canine influenza virus

#4: A Cough is just a Symptom

The kennel cough ‘cough’ is just a symptom, rather than a diagnosis in its own right. In the same way that vomiting can be due to a bug, kidney disease, a womb infection, or garbage gut, so a cough can be due to other causes other than a respiratory infection.

For example, distemper is a viral infection that causes coughing as one of many more widespread effects. And then there are other conditions where a cough is a symptom for example:

  • Heartworm
  • Lungworm
  • Bronchitis
  • Heart disease
  • Inhalational pneumonia
  • Lung cancer

Long story short, get a coughing dog checked by the vet.

#5 Piggy-back Infections

What can happen with a contagious cough is that another bug piggy-backs on the first one, causing what’s known as a ‘secondary infection’. These cases sometimes do require antibiotics to get rid of the added problem.

The difference being that viral causes of a cough (such as parainfluenza virus or coronoavirus) don’t have a specific treatment, and antibiotics should not be used because they won’t kill the virus. However, if another agent such as a bacteria takes advantage of the dog’s weakened state, then antibiotics may be required.

#6 Signs of a Contagious Cough

You can’t tell by the sound alone whether a cough is contagious or not. However, a good clue as to the cause is if your dog has recently been in close contact with another coughing dog. Also, contagious coughs tend to come on quickly, such as overnight.

If there is such a thing as a typical contagious cough, it often sounds like the dog hass something stuck in their throat. It’s a hacking, tiring cough which sometime ends with the dog bringing up phlegm or saliva.

Just as when we have a bug, how ill we are depends on the type of bug, and the same is true for dogs. Some contagious coughs are the doggy equivalent of a mild cold, whilst other are like having whooping cough. Some infections mean the dog is otherwise firing on all cylinders but just has a cough, whilst others leave the dog feverish, off their food, and down in the dumps.

#7 Same Bug, Different Outcomes

The type of bug isn’t the only variable when it comes to how sick a pet gets.  Whilst a fit, young dog is unlikely to come to harm this isn’t the case for all their canine cousins.

Some dogs have weak immune systems or are at risk of coughing causing complications. These include:

  • Very young dogs and puppies
  • Senior dogs
  • Those with another health problem such as heart disease, pre-existing breathing problems, or cancer.

#8 Treatment of Contagious Coughs

No all contagious coughs need antibiotics. Those are most likely to be prescribed if the vet is worried about a secondary infection. Signs that may tip the clincian towards prescribing antibiotics include:

  • A deteriorating dog
  • Fever
  • Not eating
  • Another health problem such as suffering from lymphoma.

A useful treatment that makes the dog feel a bit better is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as meloxicam. This helps reduce fever and inflammation, generally helping to perk the dog up.

Prescribing medications that stop a cough in its tracks has largely gone out of fashion. This is based on the ‘Better out than in’ principle, with it being considered better to move infected discharges up out of the lungs rather than letting them sit there.

Apart from that its nursing care that makes all the difference. Keep the pet comfy and out of drafts, have water close to their bed, and warm their food if they aren’t eating well.

#9 To Vaccinate or Not

Whether or not to vaccinate a dog is controversial and open to debate.

Lets start with those more clear cut cases where vaccination is definitely a good idea.

  • ‘At risk’ dogs, where a nasty cough could cause complications. Eg Elderly pets or those with a serious health condition
  • Those dogs facing a high risk of exposure. These are the dogs in group situations, such as boarding kennels, doggy day care, or those exercising in crowded dog parks.

Why wouldn’t you vaccinate?

Apart from the cost of the vaccine, why would you not bother with vaccination?

Actually, the vaccine is considered ‘non-core’ – meaning it’s not essential. Most normal, otherwise healthy dogs are more than capable of coping with a bug. They may be poorly for a week or two, but soon come bouncing back.

Think of this like the flu vaccine in people. Not everyone has to have the jab.  Those advised to have it are either seniors, those with a medical condition, or staff working in hospitals.

Can a vaccine do harm?

No, it’s very unlikely to. However, a very small number of people who have picked up infection with Bordetella as a result of their dogs being vaccinated with a live strain. These rare cases were people with cystic fibrosis or transplant patients on immunosuppressive drugs. Anybody falling into this category should let their vet know and discuss the risk with them.

#10 Other Considerations

Contagious coughs are just that, and can be passed from dog to dog. Thus, the responsible pet parent isolates their dog whilst they are coughing, to reduce the risk to other pet pals.

If you have several dogs, one of whom has a cough, then be extra scrupulous about home hygiene. Wash food and water bowls thoroughly, and wipe down surfaces with dilute bleach (where appropariate to the surface) It’s not a done deal that the other dogs in the home will become ill, because their immune system may be able to fight off the infection.

Last but not least, some cases of contagious cough can be poorly for one to three weeks. If at any stage the dog took a turn for the worse, always contact the vet. It is rare, but secondary pneumonia can occur, which needs aggressive treatment.

Kennel cough or contagious cough – an unpleasant condition but most dogs make a full recovery. However, always respect your instincts and if you are worried contact the vet.