Canine cough: an in depth guide

Updated: Apr 26

As spring gets underway, veterinarians, dog rescues, kennels, and other professionals that work with dogs, are perking up their ears to listen for a telltale hacking cough. We at Three Dog Ranch continue to be vigilant about keeping doggy vaccination records up to date, looking for symptoms, taking trips to the vet, and letting dog owners know if their dog may have come in contact with bordetella bronchiseptica, better known as kennel cough.


The bordetella vaccine is one of the vaccines we require here at Three Dog Ranch. It vaccinates dogs against the sickness caused by the bacterium bordetella bronchiseptica, which is often referred to as kennel cough, canine cough, or canine croup. We require the vaccine for grooming appointments, playcare, and kennel stays. We even verify it for visiting dogs because canine cough is highly contagious.


Kennel cough is not fatal, but it can lead to secondary infections that can be life-threatening, like bronchopneumonia. Puppies under six months, senior dogs, and dogs with pre-existing conditions are at a higher risk of those secondary infections and having a hard time fighting them off. Because of that danger and how contagious it is, we want to talk more about canine cough — its symptoms, treatment, prevention — and how we prevent its spread at Three Dog Ranch.


There are some common misperceptions about canine cough. Some examples of these misperceptions are:

  • Dogs only get canine cough from kennels and shelters.

  • Canine cough is just a cough and isn’t a cause for concern.

  • A dog can only get canine cough once.

  • A vaccinated dog can’t get canine cough.

  • Disinfecting surfaces stops the spread of canine cough between dogs.


If any of those statements sound familiar, read on to learn more about canine cough.


Symptoms:

If you have never encountered canine cough, it’s important to know what to look for and expect in the event that your dog contracts or is exposed to it.


The most well-known symptom of canine cough is, of course, the cough, which is usually the first and most obvious symptom throughout the sickness. Symptoms usually last between one and three weeks. Most people describe it as a honking sound or hacking cough. Dogs with canine cough generally cough when excited, such as when they are moving around a lot or see something that gets their heart rate going, but it doesn’t take much stimulation to get the cough going. Many owners and vets with experience with canine cough say the cough is almost constant.


However, there are other symptoms as well. Other common symptoms are sneezing and a runny nose. In more severe or concerning cases, an infected dog may also become lethargic, lose their appetite, and develop a fever. Most dogs with canine cough will seem fine other than the cough, at least at onset. We have seen dogs with possible cases of canine cough greet their owners enthusiastically, running and jumping in circles, even as they cough.


Basics:

The common scientific name for canine cough is canine infectious tracheobronchitis, which means inflammation of the trachea and bronchioles. Canine tracheobronchitis refers to any upper respiratory infection. The umbrella term for these is canine infectious respiratory diseases (CIRD), which refers to any highly contagious upper respiratory infection that is passed through air droplets. This means that canine cough includes more than just bordetella.


CIRDs can be caused by bacteria, like bordetella, or viruses, like the canine flu. What we commonly think of as kennel cough, and what the bordetella vaccine protects against, is caused by bordetella bronchiseptica. We are focusing on bordetella bronchiseptica, but because of the different possible causes of kennel cough, as well as other sicknesses with similar symptoms, we recommend regular visits to the vet, and additional visits if a new cough or other symptoms occur.


Bordetella bronchiseptica is passed through airborne droplets, like those produced by sneezing, coughing, and barking, as well as contact. Contact includes interactions between dogs, but it can also include dogs touching the same surface at different times. Bordetella can live in the air for 3-4 hours, on non-porous surfaces for up to 48 hours, and on porous surfaces (like clothing) for up to 24 hours.


Considering how easily canine cough can be transmitted, “kennel cough” is something of a misnomer. Bordetella can be passed anywhere that an infected dog is or has been in the last few hours. That includes kennels, shelters, and veterinary offices, as well as dog parks and popular walking trails. For this reason, we prefer to use the name “canine cough.”


Another challenge that canine cough presents is its three to fourteen day incubation period. It’s hard to ascertain when and where a dog contracted the sickness, and they may interact with a lot of other dogs before they become symptomatic.


Prevention:

While the sickness can be contracted through surfaces, the fact that it is airborne also means that disinfecting surfaces can’t completely stop the transmission of canine cough, though it can limit it. But our four-legged friends also touch different surfaces than we may think to clean. While we may focus on counters, dogs are more likely to touch cabinets, doors, walls, and floors.

Since bordetella can live in the air for a few hours, the most reliable way to disinfect an area of bordetella is to wait a few hours and then focus on cleaning the surfaces in the room. Particles carried in the air are too unpredictable to fully rely on air circulation from open windows or air purifiers.


The good news is that common household cleaners kill bordetella bronchiseptica, including bleach, chloride, and Lysol. (Be sure to rinse toys and food bowls with water after using disinfectants so they don’t ingest those chemicals.)


If you are concerned about your dog contracting canine cough because they are at risk for secondary infections, it may be necessary to take additional precautions:

  • You may choose to avoid areas that have high dog traffic, such as walking trails, dog parks, and kennels when canine cough is at its height.

  • If your dog has playdates, it may be worthwhile to ask the owners if their dog is vaccinated.

  • If you interact with dogs as part of your job or day-to-day life, it’s a good idea to at least wash your hands before going home to your dog. It may also be a good idea to change clothes when you get home because bordetella bronchiseptica and other bacteria and viruses can survive on fabric and be transmitted.


The best way to prevent the spread of canine cough is quarantining sick dogs from the onset of symptoms until two to three weeks after symptoms stop. Quarantining for dogs means canceling any grooming appointments, kennel stays, playdates or playcare, and group training sessions. Also avoid dog parks and other places other dogs may frequent. If you have a multi-dog home, it’s likely that the infection has already passed but symptoms aren’t showing up yet, so you’ll want to quarantine all of them, but it’s up to you whether or not you isolate them from one another.


The Vaccine:

The above practices are good to follow, especially in the spring and summer when canine cough is more prevalent because of the activities we engage in during good weather, as well as more frequent kennel visits when we go on vacation. But the best way to prevent your dog from contracting bordetella bronchiseptica is by getting them vaccinated, even if they have had canine cough before.


While the bordetella vaccine is considered a non-core vaccine, it is highly recommended. Puppies receive their first bordetella vaccine between six and eight weeks old, and then a second one when they’re 10-12 weeks old. (If they miss those deadlines, vets recommend starting them at 16 weeks and then continuing with a normal bordetella vaccine schedule.)


After receiving the vaccine as puppies, dogs receive a “booster” form of the vaccine. Even dogs that have had canine cough before can contract it again, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the booster. Adult dogs should receive the bordetella booster every 6 months to a year, depending on the vaccine. Some vets say the 6 month boosters are more effective, and will recommend it especially for dogs that interact with other dogs consistently, or that frequent popular doggy hangouts, like the dog park, walking trails, or dog-friendly businesses.


As the name states, it is specifically for the bordetella bacterium. The vaccine, which can be administered intranasally, orally, or by injection, works by introducing nonpathogenic (doesn’t cause sickness) bordetella to the dog’s system. The exposure to a weaker form of the bacterium builds up the dog’s immune system and prepares it for fighting the sickness if exposed. Some bordetella vaccines may also include protection against the canine parainfluenza virus, which is another common cause of canine cough, and has similar symptoms to bordetella bronchiseptica.


Proof of a current bordetella vaccine is required at most kennels and daycares. However, places like dog parks and dog friendly businesses generally don’t require it, so not only is it possible that your dog is interacting with an infected dog, but you also may not know whether your dog is interacting with an unvaccinated dog.


Treatment:

While veterinarians and dog facilities highly recommend or require the bordetella vaccine, it’s important to note that it doesn’t guarantee that your dog won’t get canine cough. As with any vaccine, for humans or animals, it can’t provide complete protection. In many cases, though, a vaccinated dog that contracts bordetella will have less severe symptoms than if they hadn’t received the vaccine.


We saw that in the Flathead Valley in 2020 when a unique strain of canine cough was going around and many local vets observed that vaccinated dogs seemed to have less severe symptoms and recover faster than their unvaccinated counterparts.


In the event that your dog contracts canine cough, make sure you isolate them to prevent them from transmitting it to other dogs. While it is recommended to take your dog to the vet anytime a new cough occurs, there isn’t a whole lot that vets can do for canine cough caused by a bacteria like bordetella bronchiseptica, so some owners choose to forgo the vet and take care of their dogs from home when they suspect canine cough. It’s important to make sure symptomatic dogs get plenty of water and rest, and that they move around occasionally to avoid secondary infections like pneumonia. It may also be better to use a harness rather than a collar to avoid further irritating their throat.


If you do choose to go that route, be aware that, while less common, distemper, a collapsing trachea, asthma, and heart disease also often start with novel coughs. Also, if the symptoms become concerning (i.e. lethargy, decreased appetite, fever) do take your dog to the vet.


Generally, when a vet suspects bordetella or your dog tests for it, they will prescribe rest and tell you to keep an eye out for worsening symptoms. Some vets may also prescribe a cough medicine to give your dog some relief, or antibiotics for secondary infections that may already be present or develop. In rare cases, they may prescribe a nebulizer or vaporizer with antibiotics or bronchodilators, especially if your dog is a puppy, senior, or has pre-existing conditions since those dogs are at a higher risk for life-threatening secondary conditions.


Our Protocol:

Your dog’s wellbeing is our top priority at Three Dog Ranch, so we have certain protocol in place to prevent the passing of sicknesses between dogs should they occur.


We start protecting our guests before they even reach the door by requiring the bordetella booster for all of our guests, including grooming clients, playcare attendees, overnight guests, and even those touring the facility. Vaccine records are saved to each dog’s profile with the expiration date so that we can follow up if they lapse between visits. We also require that the vaccine is administered at least two weeks before your dog’s visit because it takes the vaccine about two weeks to provide full protection. (This isn’t necessary if the vaccine is kept up to date.)


Our next layer of protection is our cleaning protocol. Each room has an air filter that cycles and cleans the air, which doesn’t kill the bacteria, but could decrease the contaminants in the air. We clean each kennel and crate daily, and provide new water bowls. When we wash food and water bowls, we disinfect them with bleach either before or after scrubbing them with dish soap. Between guests, we deep clean each kennel with special focus on the floor and nose-level surfaces. Bedding and toys — whether personal or provided by us — is kept in individual kennels and crates, and laundered between guests, or as needed if it gets dirty during a dog’s stay. We also disinfect the yards and clean any communal toys from the playcare yards.


In the event that a guest begins to show symptoms of canine cough, we isolate them from other dogs to the best of our ability with limited space and alert the owners. If possible, the owners come and pick up their dog early. If the dog is in playcare, we require a vet’s note or that the symptoms stop before the dog returns. If the dog is staying overnight in our kennels and the symptoms worsen, we will take them to the vet (either the one you list, or our vet if yours isn’t local) and administer medicine and recommended care as needed.


Finally, we let the owners of doggy guests know about confirmed cases of canine cough, regardless of the cause, specifically if they were in close proximity to the sick dog. That includes all playcare dogs if the dog did that, as well as the room their kennel was in since those dogs breathe the same air and touch a lot of the same surfaces on their way in and out of the yards.

By focusing on protecting against infection, preventing transmission, and transparency, we have been able to keep breakouts of canine cough to a minimum in our facility. And that means that we can focus on making your dog’s time with us fun and enriching.


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