Bordetella in Dogs

A brussels griffon looking up at his owner in jeans and socks.
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Bordetella is a bacterial infection that is a component of kennel cough in dogs. Characterized by the classic goose honking cough and nasal discharge, Bordetella luckily resolves without much drastic intervention. Most often dogs catch Bordetella from other dogs in group settings, but your pet can be protected better by vaccinating them at their annual veterinary exam. 

What is Bordetella

Bordetella bronchieseptica is a bacterium that is commonly associated with kennel cough. Kennel cough is a common name for canine infectious tracheobronchitis which causes a persistent cough that can last for up to three weeks. Dogs become infected with Bordetella through air droplets from infected dogs. These droplets can be airborne or linger on surfaces like toys and food bowls. When a dog is tested to find exactly what strains of bacteria or virus is causing kennel cough, it is no uncommon for other components like parainfluenza, reovirus, adenovirus, and others to be found. As a whole, the collective cough may be called “kennel cough”. 

Any dog of any age can get kennel cough but it is commonly seen in dogs coming from shelter’s or a revolving multi-dog environment like a dog park, doggy day care, groomers, and boarding facilities. Even dogs saying “hello” in passing can inadvertently infect each other.

Signs of Bordetella

Bordetella can start off with a decreased appetite and lower energy. In puppies under six months old this may be very pronounced. Any or all of the following may be present:

  • Nasal discharge ranging from clear to green in color
  •  Fever
  • Persistent coughing (often with a "honking" sound)
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia

Causes of Bordetella

A dog becomes infected with Bordetella after it is exposed to respiratory secretions of an infected dog. An infected dog can be barking and shed infectious particles into the air where another dog will inhale them. When inhaled, the bacterium binds to the delicate cilia fibers lining the respiratory tract and cause infection. Dogs can also become infected by sharing toys at a dog park, licking each others faces, and drinking from a communal water bowel. Living up to it’s name, confined spaces such as boarding facilities and shelters have limited ventilation where airborne illnesses thrive. The time from exposure to Bordetella and a dog showing the active symptoms can be 2 days to 2 weeks. 

Diagnosing Bordetella

Diagnosing Bordetella or kennel is a common occurrence especially in young puppies that have been recently transported. During a physical exam the dog’s temperature is taken along with listening to the chest for any sounds of fluid in the chest. Usually the history from the pet owner along with clinic signs of coughing, fever, nasal discharge are enough confirmation for a diagnosis of Bordetella. To definitively diagnose Bordetella a nasal swab can be submitted to a reference lab for PCR testing, a process where the DNA on the swab is evaluated for the specific genetic signature of the infection. 

In dogs that have a brachycephalic or smushed facial profile like bulldogs and pugs, early treatment is prudent as these dogs are predisposed to respiratory complications due to their anatomy. Dogs can develop pneumonia if Bordetella is left untreated.

Treatment of Bordetella

Bordetella can typically resolve without intervention but after being examined a veterinarian that examines a dog suspective of kennel cough will prescribe an antibiotic, commonly doxycycline. Medications to decrease the cough will also be prescribed to improve the dog’s comfort while he recovers. To offset dehydration your vet can administer fluids under the skin and may recommend adding warm water to canned food as most dogs will eat less if they cannot smell their food.

Within two days of initiating antibiotics a dog should start to visibly improve. If not, than being re-evaluated is imperative to make sure pneumonia has not developed. The kennel cough complex may have more than one organism in addition to Bordetella, this can complicate the situation as only antibiotics will work on the bacterial component of the disease. In more severe cases a dog may need to be hospitalized and have intravenous fluids support and antibiotics and or oxygen therapy.

How to Prevent Bordetella

Preventing Bordetella can be easier than treating it. Bordetella vaccines exist and are routinely included in both adopted dogs and puppies acquired through breeders. The most common vaccine protects against Bordetella bronchiseptica and vaccines also exist that combine Bordetella protection with canine parainfluenza protection. 

Dogs that are at risk of contracting Bordetella are dogs that have other dog friends or go to places where they may encounter other dogs housed or have nose to nose contact with other pups. Even dogs that are going to be in a training environment should be vaccinated against Bordetella if they are going to a facility where other dogs frequent. At your annual vet visit make sure to discuss with your vet the social dog encounters your pet has and which vaccines can best protect him.