Kennel cough is a common and highly contagious condition affecting puppies and adult dogs. Brought on by bacteria or viruses, the disease causes inflammation of the dog's trachea and bronchi (the tubes leading to the lungs). All dogs are susceptible, but the disease is most common in dogs exposed to crowded conditions, like those found in boarding kennels, doggy daycare, animal shelters, dog shows, bad breeders, or other stressful conditions.
What Is Kennel Cough?
Kennel cough, also known as canine infectious respiratory disease complex or canine infectious tracheobronchitis, is a contagious disease that causes inflammation of the dog's trachea and bronchi, the tubes leading to the lungs.
Infectious bacterial or viral agents damage the cilia (tiny hair-like projections) within an infected dog's airways, causing a cough. Cilia normally protect the respiratory tract by clearing away irritants like dust, bacteria, and other microorganisms with wave-like motions. When they are damaged, the protective mechanism breaks down, which increases the chances that one or more infections will develop.
Kennel cough got its name from one of the most likely sources of disease transmission: crowded boarding kennels.
Symptoms of Kennel Cough in Puppies
Most cases of kennel cough cause mild disease, with symptoms that tend to be more aggravating to owners than dangerous to the puppy. However, if left untreated, kennel cough can develop into life-threatening pneumonia.
Kennel cough causes inflammation of the pup's trachea and bronchi, resulting in a telltale cough that often sounds like a high-pitched honking. The cough can be prompted by excitement, drinking, or gentle pressure applied to the base of the puppy’s throat. Leash tugging may result in coughing, too. Nasal or eye discharge, fever, and loss of appetite are less common symptoms and are more likely to appear if the disease progresses, untreated.
Symptoms of a kennel cough infection usually develop between two and 10 days following exposure, which is another good reason to quarantine new puppies.
Causes of Kennel Cough
Kennel cough is a condition that can be caused by one or a combination of different infectious agents, including:
- Bordetella bronchiseptica and Mycoplasma bacteria
- Canine parainfluenza virus
- Canine adenovirus-2 (CAV-2).
Kennel cough spreads through the saliva and nasal secretions. It can happen through direct contact when your puppy sniffs or licks an infected dog or a contaminated object in their environment. However, coughing also transmits the agents through the air from one dog to another.
Diagnosing Kennel Cough in Puppies
Your vet will diagnose kennel cough based on your pup's recent history and clinical signs. For instance, if your puppy was recently adopted from a shelter or kennel—or spent time at a boarding facility—those are all risk factors. In most cases, it's not important to identify the infectious agent responsible for a dog's symptoms, but tests can be run if that becomes necessary.
Kennel cough can develop into a vicious cycle. The infection causes irritation that prompts a cough, which then causes even more irritation. Mild cases may resolve at home with rest and nursing care, but if a puppy's symptoms are severe or fail to improve relatively rapidly, veterinary care will be necessary.
Antibiotics may be required when bacterial infections are involved. Anti-inflammatory drugs and bronchodilators (which open breathing passages) may also be prescribed. If pneumonia develops, your dog will need more aggressive treatment.
When your puppy suffers from congestion, there are home remedies to soothe its symptoms during convalescence.
- Use a vaporizer to help unclog the nose. Put your pet in a fairly small room with a cool-mist humidifier and use it just the same as you would for a child a couple of times a day. This will not only help break up the congestion but also moisten irritated eyes and nostrils and make them feel better.
- If you don’t have a vaporizer or humidifier, a hot shower can work. Take your dog into the bathroom with you and run the hot shower so that the air fills with steam. A 10-minute session several times a day works great—don’t go for longer than that, because too much hot, moist air can make it hard for some pets to breathe, especially short-faced bulldogs and pugs.
- You can also use a warm washcloth or cotton balls to soak and soften eye or nose secretions and clean them off. Don’t peel dried matter off because that can hurt or damage the skin.
Refusing to eat and drink can make a puppy even sicker. Ask your vet about offering pungent and more tempting foods to spark a sick pup’s appetite. Warm the food for five seconds in the microwave to just below body temperature—about 95 to 98 degrees Fahrenheit. That will unlock the aroma so the food smells more pungent and penetrates even a stuffy nose.
Moisture also helps enhance the aroma, so try adding a bit of warm water or chicken broth to your dog's regular food. If your puppy's appetite doesn't improve within 24 hours, call your veterinarian.
With attentive care, puppies generally recover from kennel cough within a few weeks. Severe cases present the risk of pneumonia, which is a more serious condition and can be dangerous, requiring intensive veterinary care to avoid critical illness or death.
Because kennel cough is highly contagious to other dogs, it is important to isolate a sick pup (or one that is coughing regularly) from other canines and watch for coughing in those that have been exposed. Infected pups may remain contagious to other dogs for several weeks, so isolation can be challenging in multi-dog households.
Protective vaccinations against kennel cough are available. Some vaccinations are given by injection, while others are given as drops in the nose or mouth to stimulate what's known as a "local immunity." Your veterinarian can advise you on the best option for your dog. Dogs at high risk for kennel cough may benefit from annual vaccinations; otherwise, this vaccine may only be administered before your puppy can be boarded at a kennel or attend puppy classes.
Is Kennel Cough Contagious to Other Animals?
Kennel cough is highly contagious to other canines, so an infected puppy should be isolated from other dogs of all ages. This disease is not contagious to humans or other pet species.
Tracheobronchitis in Small Animals. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Reagan, Krystle L, and Jane E Sykes. Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice vol. 50,2 (2020): 405-418. doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2019.10.009