If your dog is suffering from a gnarly cough, Bordetella could be the cause.
veterinarian giving dog vaccination
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When dogs hang out together, bordetellosis—more commonly called Bordetella or kennel cough—can take hold. Your veterinarian may have already mentioned the necessity of giving your dog a Bordetella vaccine before you can bring her in for boarding, because anywhere dogs are in contact with other pups—like kennels, dog shows, doggy daycare, and dog parks—can be a place where Bordetella is transmitted. But luckily, Bordetella is relatively easy to treat, and even easier to prevent.

What Causes Bordetella?

One of the most common respiratory infectious diseases in dogs, bordetellosis, is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella bronchiseptica, which invades the lung tissues. It is spread by aerosolized spray, like coughing or sneezing, from a dog's mouth or nose. Bordetellosis is a form of infectious tracheobronchitis and is related to whooping cough in people, caused by a different species of Bordetella known as Bordetella pertussis.

Because the virus harms the respiratory tract, other bacteria can have an easier time invading as well, leading to further issues like pneumonia. "This disease is a complex of many causative agents," Primm says.

Bordetella spreads easily from one dog to another, so if your dog spends a lot of time with other dogs, vaccination is recommended. And, if you suspect your pup is infected with the disease, it's important to keep your pup at home and away from other dogs to prevent the spread.

Luckily, humans can't get Bordetella from dogs. But because the bacteria can live on surfaces, it's possible for humans to spread the bacteria from an infected dog to another, so it's important to disinfect your hands, water bowls and toys if you suspect your dog is infected.

Signs & Symptoms of Bordetella in Dogs

The most common sign of Bordetella in dogs is in the infection's alternate name: Kennel cough. "Kennel cough is characterized by coughing and upper respiratory signs," says Kathryn Primm, DVM, of Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tenn.

These are the most common signs of Bordetella and other respiratory infections in dogs:

  • A dry, persistent cough
  • Gagging
  • Hacking
  • Watery, runny nose

The cough is often characterized as loud and harsh, as the dog's lungs try to clear themselves of a build-up of phlegm as the infection spreads within the respiratory tract. Your dog may also sound like she's hacking or gagging to clear her throat.

But note that some infected dogs are asymptomatic, and show no signs of infection at all. That's why it's so important to ensure all dogs are vaccinated before boarding or prolonged closeness with other dogs, to help make sure bordetellosis doesn't have a chance to set in and make a dog sick.

How is Bordetella Treated?

It's important to book a visit with your veterinarian if your dog is dealing with a persistent cough so he can get treated as soon as possible. If an infection does take hold in a dog's lungs, bordetellosis treatment by your veterinarian might include a prescription antibiotic to help fight those other bacterial irritants that can make the infection even worse.

Your vet may also recommend rest and minimal exercise as your dog recovers, since the coughing can be exacerbated by exercise or stimulation of the throat.

While you may be inclined to try and treat your dog's cough at home, human cough medicine should never be given to dogs. And because Bordetella is caused by bacteria, coughing actually helps get the gunk out of your pup's throat, meaning a cough suppressant can do more harm than good.

When Should My Dog Get the Bordetella Vaccine?

The best way to prevent Bordetella in dogs is through the Bordetella vaccine. These vaccines can be delivered in three different ways, and the best time to start inoculation prevention can vary, as listed by guidelines from the American Animal Hospital Association:

  • Two skin injections 2 to 4 weeks apart; can start injection series at 8 weeks of age
  • A single administration into the nose; can start at 3 or 4 weeks of age
  • A single oral administration between the gums and the inner cheek; can start at 8 weeks of age

Talk to your veterinarian about their preferred method of delivery. Primm says her practice uses the intraoral Bordetella vaccination—through the dog's mouth—because it tends to be better tolerated by the pup. She adds, "I think that the most effective vaccine is the one that you can actually get into the pet!" 

After their initial dose of the vaccine, dogs should then receive a booster injection once a year to maintain protection against infection.

Are There Any Risks of Giving My Dog the Bordetella Vaccine?

"In my experience, the vaccine is safe and well-tolerated," Primm says. "Like any vaccine, it is not 100 percent effective against all coughs, so owners cannot expect an 'easy button' that will always protect from every kind of cough and it must be kept current per the guidelines and your veterinarian's recommendation." 

Taking measures to protect your dog from the respiratory disease bordetellosis is nothing to cough at. Be sure to talk with your vet to make sure your dog is up to date on her Bordetella booster, too—which is typically required every year at your annual visit.