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canine health problems
Cute labrador puppy dog sitting confortably in the arms of veterinary healthcare professional

kennel cough is only life threatening in young puppies and older dogs

The essentials

  • Kennel cough has a noticeably odd sound — A cough that sounds like a honk is the first sign.
  • Kennel cough is highly contagious — Kennel cough bacteria spread in the air, making it especially easy for your pup to catch if exposed.
  • Your vet can help — The good news is, kennel cough is treatable with the help of a vet. It’s important to avoid secondary infection.
  • Make sure your pup is fully cured before socializing them — Because kennel cough is so contagious, you’ll want to keep your dog home for one week after symptoms have completely resolved. Just because your pup is feeling better, doesn’t mean they’re ready to go out.
  • Avoid kennel cough all together — The best way to avoid kennel cough is to stay up to date on vaccines and to keep your dog away from dust, smoke, and infected pups.
  • Vaccination is recommended — Any social or high-risk dogs should get vaccinated.

What is kennel cough?

Canine infectious tracheobronchitis, otherwise known as kennel cough, is a contagious respiratory disease. Dogs can contract kennel cough anywhere large groups of dogs congregate. Common examples are boarding facilities, dog parks, or animal shelters.

Kennel cough occurs when a dog inhales bacteria into the respiratory tract. You might hear kennel cough referred to as “Bordetella bacteria” or “Bordetella bronchiseptica.” That’s the name of the bacteria which mixes with another virus to produce kennel cough and other upper respiratory infections. Bordetella bronchiseptica can cause illness and coughing all on its own too.

Due to the various ways infectious bacteria can mix to make kennel cough, you might hear vets refer to “kennel cough” as “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex.”

How it spreads

Kennel cough spreads in one of three ways.

  1. Airborne droplets. Kennel cough bacteria can spread in the air. Droplets can travel six feet or further. This is what makes it so contagious.
  2. Skin contact. This one seems obvious. Dogs in direct contact with one another can spread kennel cough. If you have more than one dog living under the same roof, they may all have it.
  3. Contaminated surfaces. Bordetella bacteria can live on surfaces for up to two days.

🚨 Keep your dog away from their friend’s water bowls and toys. An infected dog may have been using it and can spread the virus to your healthy pup.

Kennel cough: Incubation period and contagion stages

If your dog is exposed to another sick dog, pay attention. The incubation period is the period between exposure and display of first symptoms. For kennel cough, the incubation period of the illness is two to fourteen days.

How long does kennel cough last?

Once your dog has caught kennel cough, symptoms usually last for a matter of days. In more severe cases, kennel cough lasts for several weeks. If Bordetella is the main culprit, kennel cough itself will last for around 10 days.

How long is kennel cough contagious for?

When the cough is gone, it doesn’t mean that the dog is no longer contagious. Dogs should not be taken out until one week after they’re completely symptom-free to ensure they won’t spread the virus.

Dogs are actually at their most contagious just after they have stopped displaying symptoms. This means it’s best to avoid boarding facilities, daycares, dog shows, or dog parks — anywhere where your dog may hang around with other dogs during this period.

Identifying symptoms of kennel cough

The most obvious symptom is the honking or hacking cough. The cough will be persistent and may get worse over the course of a couple of days.

👉 The cough will sound something like this: 

Other warning signs include cold-like symptoms. Look out for a runny nose and nasal discharge, sneezing, eye discharge, lethargy, and a low-grade fever. Symptoms of kennel cough may appear like symptoms of canine influenza.

🚨 Tips for taking your dog’s temperature: Put a thermometer into the underarm region or into the rectal area. Use an ointment or lubricant on the area before inserting the thermometer. The underarm method may take the thermometer longer to produce a result and it is not as accurate as a rectal reading. Here are the best pet thermometers our vets recommend — our must-have is the Pet-Temp Instant Pet Ear Thermometer because it’s super simple to use.

What if symptoms aren’t getting better?

Most cases resolve in somewhere between one and three weeks. If it is a more severe case, or mixed with something like the influenza virus, coughing can last for multiple months.

Sometimes, symptoms will get worse before getting better even if you’ve visited the vet for treatment. This is because respiratory infections need time to run their course. Eventually your dog’s cough will subside, but sometimes the hack will linger around longer than other symptoms. In severe cases, secondary infections may develop.

How to treat kennel cough

Kennel cough is treatable. Sometimes, it resolves itself. The first thing you should do is isolate your dog from other pups to not spread respiratory illness. We know the cough can sound alarming, so going to the vet is always a good idea. If your dog is senior, a puppy, or has other underlying health issues, don’t hesitate to take them in for a check up.

The vet will typically not prescribe anything and let the dog’s immune system fight off the illness itself. The first plan of action is for your dog to get plenty of rest. If they do prescribe something, it will be an antibiotic like doxycycline or a cough suppressant. Nebulizers and vaporizers are prescribed in severe cases to stave off a secondary infection.

Kennel cough and secondary infection

Head to the vet if symptoms do persist. It might be something more serious like dog influenza or pneumonia.

A note on young puppies, older dogs, and immunocompromised dogs

Dogs under six months old and dogs with compromised immune systems might have a harder time fighting kennel cough. They are also at higher risk of developing canine influenza. That’s why in these pups, it’s important to recognize the warning signs early.

How long is kennel cough contagious? Kennel cough prevention

The best way to prevent the spread of kennel cough is to limit exposure. It takes dogs 14 days to shed the Kennel cough virus, so keep your dog isolated for at least two weeks after the onset of symptoms to ensure that it doesn’t spread to other dogs in the home or community. Certain factors increase the likelihood that your dog may contract kennel cough. Follow these steps to prevent infection:

  • Stay away from infected pups until they are no longer contagious.
  • Make sure your dog drinks from their own bowl and plays with their own toys.
  • Limit your pup’s time outdoors in cold or freezing temperatures.
  • Keep your dog away from smoke and dust.
  • Use a dehumidifier to purify the air in your dog’s sleeping space.
  • Do what you can to keep your dog’s stress levels down.
  • Isolate your pup if they are sick to prevent the spread.
  • Highly consider vaccination.

🚨 Pro tip: Use a harness and not a collar when walking a dog with kennel cough. Pulling on your dog’s chest instead of their neck could help prevent a coughing fit. 

Vets recommend kennel cough vaccines

Vaccines to prevent kennel cough do exist. There is a specific Bordetella vaccine. It can be injected, used as a nasal mist, or taken orally. It will not prevent 100% of infections but it will prevent some of the most severe.

A vaccination will decrease also the chances that a dog develops pneumonia. Vaccination is given to fight against things like canine parainfluenza virus and canine adenovirus. According to a vet, these are highly effective. Even healthy dogs should consider vaccination. We recommend vaccination to any dog who gets groomed, goes to dog parks, or stays at boarding facilities .

Puppies can get the vaccination as early as eight weeks old. Older or at-risk dogs can be vaccinated every six to twelve months.

Can humans get kennel cough?

The evidence is slim. What we do know, is that humans can catch the Bordetella bacteria from other means and not just canines. This is rare and largely specific to high-risk individuals. All in all, it’s very unlikely for humans to catch Bordetella and other canine respiratory infections. If they do catch the bacteria, it likely won’t cause symptoms and will probably just hang around.

It is important to note that only very specific infections (like rabies) can be transmitted from dogs to humans.

Dog owners shouldn’t worry too much about kennel cough

Kennel cough is more uncomfortable for your dog than it is dangerous.

👉 To avoid it all together, consider vaccination. 

In summary, when a dog has kennel cough, keep them out of close quarters with other dogs. Minimize risk factors, avoid stress, and monitor your pup for symptoms or clinical signs of kennel cough. And keep an ear out for that honking cough.