Kennel Cough: More Info, Less Fear.

What is Kennel Cough?

Two words that tend to generate confusion among pet parents: kennel cough.  Kennel cough is a broad term used to describe canine upper respiratory infections, both viral and bacterial, that can be caused by many different pathogens. 

Many of these infections have similar symptoms including a harsh, dry, hacking cough.  The coughing can be followed by gagging with production of foamy mucus, runny nose, loss of appetite, sneezing, mild fever, and goopy eyes.  Many of these symptoms can last weeks if left untreated. 

Canine upper respiratory infections are highly contagious and the disease is airborne.  Canine cough is spread through aerosols – coming into contact with the fine droplets that a dog with the disease coughs up.  The infections are also spread by nose-to-nose contact.  In some cases, a dog can be contagious many days before showing any symptoms, thereby increasing the contagiousness.  Additionally, many strains have up to a 14-day incubation period. 

It is not uncommon to have outbreaks in areas of high concentrations of dogs including grooming facilities, shelters, boarding facilities, and daycare facilities.  However, dogs can contract the infection at a multitude of places including the dog park, puddles, water bowls, and even a shared street during an outdoor walk or the neighbor’s dog across the fence.   

What To Do if You Dog Has Kennel Cough

The good news is that most dogs with upper respiratory infections have a self-limiting disease, meaning they resolve with little or no treatment.  In a healthy young dog, a mild and uncomplicated case of kennel cough doesn’t present much of an issue beyond a very annoying persistent cough and perhaps making your dog feel a bit miserable. If you believe your dogs has kennel cough, try to separate them from other dogs as the disease is extremely contagious.  At Fetch, we require dogs to be symptom free for 10 days before being allowed back into our facility. 

When to See a Vet

Most cases don’t require treatment.  However, in puppies, older dogs, or dogs with diseases that affect their immune systems, such as heart conditions, kennel cough can be quite nasty and may progress to pneumonia.  If your dog falls into one of those categories or has extreme lethargy, trouble breathing, doesn’t eat for a few days, or is coughing so hard you see blood specks, call your veterinarian right away.  Most medical treatment does not cure the infection, but will lessen symptoms, making your dog more comfortable.  Your vet may prescribe a cough suppressant, and/or a steroid with an antihistamine or an antibiotic as a proactive approach to diminish the possibility of the disease progression resulting in pneumonia. 


Vaccinations don’t always work and only cover a couple of types of infection.  The most prominent misconception is a belief that if a dog received the Bordetella vaccination, they are immune to kennel cough.  This is false.  The Bordetella vaccination is commonly referred to as the “Kennel Cough” vaccine, thus causing more confusion. 

The Bordetella vaccine only protects dogs from getting an upper respiratory infection from Bordetella.  It does not protect against the other numerous pathogens that can cause the same symptoms of other canine upper respiratory infections.  While the Bordetella vaccine may not prevent your dog from getting the disease, it can lessen the severity of the disease.  Vaccination is essential to limit the spread of Bordetella, and to protect against the nastiest strains; though it’s important to know that even vaccinated dogs can still develop the milder strains of Bordetella.  Just like humans, dogs can acquire immunity to a strain once contracted.      

Even the cleanest facility in the world can still get a kennel cough outbreak.  Many people believe if a facility has an outbreak of kennel cough the facility is unclean, dirty, or incorrectly managed.  This is incorrect.  Like the human common cold, canine upper respiratory infections are highly contagious.  Because the disease is airborne, cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces cannot eliminate it.  It can spread up to 12 feet in every direction from a single cough. Some dogs are asymptomatic carriers while others can be contagious up to 5 days before showing any symptoms.  While cleaning and disinfecting will help stem the spread of the disease is won’t completely stop it from spreading. 

If your dog gets kennel cough remember, it’s totally treatable.  They will be uncomfortable and a little miserable, but some rest, medicine and cuddles are the best remedies. 


Dawn Milligan, Best Friends Animal Hospital, Great Falls, Montana.