Veterinarian advice on kennel cough symptoms and causes as well as treatments. Plus how to prevent your pup from getting it in the first place.

By Katie Boyce
August 24, 2020
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It’s common to see a dog coughing when excited or tugging on his leash. But if your dog is coughing or gagging more often and without an obvious cause, it might be kennel cough. Veterinarian Clif Paulsen of Cedar Valley Veterinary Center shares common symptoms, causes, and treatment options for kennel cough.

What is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough is a blanket term used to describe a number of respiratory issues that cause a consistent cough in dogs. “Kennel cough isn’t one specific bacteria or virus,” Paulsen explains. In fact, kennel cough is typically brought on by a combination of both bacterial and viral agents. Some forms of kennel cough can even be non-infectious, meaning they’re caused by environmental irritants or other health issues rather than something that’s contagious.

Often though, when people use the term kennel cough, they’re referring to Bordetella—a contagious bacteria that can cause respiratory issues and cold-like symptoms in dogs. 

How Do Dogs Get Kennel Cough?

Typically, kennel cough is spread through the air or on surfaces. Paulsen explains that because of this, dogs are more likely to pick up kennel cough in crowded environments like dog parks, boarding and grooming facilities, or any place they come in contact with other dogs. Kennel cough spreads between dogs in the same way kids get sick at daycare, he says. “If it’s someplace where [dogs] are under the same roof, breathing the same air, it’s a higher likelihood than it would be outside.” 

Dogs are also more susceptible to contracting kennel cough in crowded environments because stress and poor air quality inhibit their bodies’ ability to ward off the pathogens in the first place. Factors like colder air temperatures, poor ventilation, and stress from crowding or being confined to a crate can all decrease the mucosal layer in a dog’s respiratory tract, making them more likely to become infected.

If you’re wondering if kennel cough is contagious to humans, the answer is no. Even though kennel cough isn’t something that can make people sick, Paulsen says that doesn’t mean it’s not possible for humans to spread it from dog to dog. Like the flu virus, Bordetella and other bacteria can live on surfaces, so it’s important to keep water bowls, toys, surfaces, and even your hands disinfected if you suspect your dog has kennel cough. 

“If we have a dog come in with a suspected case of kennel cough, we really try to disinfect that person before they go to the next room. We might even have them change [scrubs],” Paulsen says. “Especially if we see a small outbreak of kennel cough in the area, we’ll start using just one room for those dogs that come in so hopefully nobody will walk out of here with something they didn’t come in with.”

If you suspect your dog has kennel cough, it’s important to keep him home until his symptoms subside as kennel cough is extremely contagious.

Credit: Emma Darvick

Symptoms of Kennel Cough

Mild kennel cough symptoms include:

  • A persistent, dry cough
  • Gagging
  • Hacking as though they’re trying to clear their throat

Many describe the kennel cough sound as a honking or a reverse sneeze. Some dogs also experience sneezing, watery eyes, or a runny nose. Dogs with kennel cough typically maintain normal energy levels and appetite. While playfulness and high energy levels are the sign of a healthy pup, it’s best to limit strenuous activity until his cough goes away since excitement and exercise can increase coughing and irritate your pup’s airway.

So how long does kennel cough last? The incubation period for kennel cough is from two to14 days, and symptoms should start to subside on their own after a couple of weeks. However, if your dog develops a fever, becomes lethargic, or if the cough steadily worsens, Paulsen recommends heading into the vet for a professional exam.

How is Kennel Cough Diagnosed?

If your dog exhibits mild symptoms, a diagnosis isn’t usually necessary since most cases clear up on their own. However, kennel cough in puppies and older dogs with preexisting health issues can become problematic, so it’s best to address it early to prevent complications.

Since there’s no specific test for kennel cough, your vet will examine your dog’s symptoms and rule out other health conditions that could be causing their cough. While your vet could take swabs to determine the specific virus or bacterial infection behind your dog’s case of kennel cough, it’s typically not necessary or helpful for treatment.

How to Treat Kennel Cough

Much like the human cold virus, the body is typically able to fight off the illness without medical intervention. For this reason, kennel cough treatment is often a “wait and see” approach, Paulsen says. “A lot of times, if you see your veterinarian, they might treat it symptomatically and nothing more,” he explains. This might look like “calming down the cough so your dog feels better, but letting the rest of the potential disease process run its course.” There is no one kennel cough medicine, but your vet might prescribe a cough suppressant to help alleviate your dog’s discomfort.

If symptoms persist and your vet does decide your pup could use a more aggressive treatment plan for her kennel cough, antibiotics can help. But Paulsen points out, it’s important for pet owners to remember that not all cases of kennel cough require antibiotics, for two reasons. First, he says, their case may be viral—so antibiotics won’t help. Second, your pet may not need it at this point in time. Paulsen adds that vets will treat each case of kennel cough accordingly, meaning “sometimes that is symptomatic and letting the body do what it needs to.”

Can You Prevent Kennel Cough?

While there is no one surefire vaccine that can cover all forms of kennel cough, there are vaccines for certain strains of viruses and bacteria that cause the illness. So while the illness is not entirely preventable, you can greatly reduce your dog’s chances of contracting kennel cough with up-to-date vaccinations. There are different types of vaccines—nasal, oral, and injectable—for Bordetella, parainfluenza, and adenovirus, three main culprits behind kennel cough. 

There is some controversy around which methods provide the most comprehensive protection against kennel cough, but all pets need to be kept up to date with boosters annually for continued effectiveness. Talk to your vet to determine the best options to keep your pet healthy and protected against kennel cough year-round.