Kennel Cough in Puppies

Dogs Relaxing Outdoors
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Canine infectious tracheobronchitis, generically referred to as kennel cough, is a highly contagious and common condition affecting puppies and adult dogs. The disease causes an inflammation of the dog's larynx, trachea, and bronchi, which are tubes leading to the lungs.

All dogs are susceptible, but the disease is most common in dogs exposed to crowded conditions found with bad breeders, or boarding kennels, dog shows, or other stressful conditions. Most cases cause only mild disease with signs that tend to be more aggravating to owners than dangerous to the dog.

But kennel cough in puppies can cause stunted lung development, and may develop into life-threatening pneumonia. This illness is not contagious to humans.

What Is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough is a condition that can be caused by any one or a combination of several different infectious agents. The most common culprits are bacteria called Bordetella bronchiseptica, the canine parainfluenza virus, and the canine adenovirus-2 (CAV-2). These agents attach themselves to the delicate hair-like cilia in the dog's trachea or actually cause the removal of the cilia.

Cilia normally protect the tracheobronchial tract by clearing away irritants like bacteria and other microorganisms with wave-like motions similar to wind moving across a grassy field. When they are destroyed—or the agent can't be dislodged from remaining cilia—the protective mechanism breaks down, resulting in further irritation to the puppy's respiratory tract.

The infection spreads through the saliva and nasal secretions. It can happen by direct nose-to-nose contact when your puppy sniffs another infected dog. However, coughing also transmits the agents through the air from one dog to another. Signs develop four to six days following exposure, which is another good reason to quarantine new puppies.

Signs of Kennel Cough in Puppies

Illustration of signs of kennel cough in puppies
Illustration: The Spruce / Bailey Mariner

The typical sign of kennel cough is, in fact, a chronic high-pitched honking cough. It can easily be prompted by excitement, drinking, or gentle pressure applied to the base of the puppy’s neck. Your puppy tugging at its leash may result in a paroxysm.

Less commonly, there is also a nasal or eye discharge, and some dogs may suffer a slight fever or loss of appetite. The signs can last from a few days to several weeks.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your veterinarian diagnoses kennel cough based on the puppy’s recent history and clinical signs. For instance, if your puppy recently was adopted from a shelter or kennel, or spent time boarded at a similar facility, those are all risk factors.

Kennel cough can develop into a vicious cycle difficult to cure without help from your veterinarian. The infection causes irritation that prompts a cough. But the honking cough causes even more irritation. In most cases, a puppy that has kennel cough won’t get better and needs medication to overcome the infection.

Cough suppressants to relieve persistent coughing are very important. Antibiotics may be required when bacterial infections are involved. Anti-inflammatory drugs and bronchodilators that open breathing passages to help the dog breathe may also be prescribed.

Home Care for Coughs and Congestion

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 the 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. That not only helps break up the congestion, but it can also moisten inflamed or tender eyes and nostrils and make them feel better.

If you don’t have a vaporizer or humidifier, a hot shower can work. Take the dog into the bathroom with you and run the hot shower so that the air becomes filled with steam. A 10-minute session several times a day works great. Don’t go for longer than that, though, because heated air for too long can be hard for some pets to breathe, especially short-faced bulldogs and pugs.

Use warm wet cloths 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 even form scabs. To soothe sore tissue after you’ve cleaned off the mucus, dab on a bit of plain saline solution, or some baby oil. That can also make it easier to clean away any more crusts that might form.

Refusing to eat can make a puppy sicker or even threaten its life. Ask your vet about offering pungent and more tempting foods to spark the 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 not only makes the threat more alluring, it also unlocks the aroma so the food smells more pungent and penetrates even a stopped up nose.

Moisture also helps enhance the aroma, so try adding a bit of warm water or chicken broth to the puppy’s regular food. Run it through the blender to make a mush, and there’s a good chance that will tempt its appetite.

How to Prevent Kennel Cough

Preventative vaccinations are available. However, protecting your puppy from kennel cough is complicated by the fact that many different infectious agents may be involved.

Some vaccinations are given by injection, while others are given as drops in the nose to stimulate what's known as a "local immunity" in the nasal passages. Local immunity is relatively short-lived, however, and may only protect the dog for six months or so.

Dogs at high risk may benefit from annual (or more frequent) vaccinations. These vaccinations may be given alone or in combination, and are often recommended when you anticipate your puppy will be placed at risk for exposure, such as boarding at a kennel over travel trips away from home, or during the holidays.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.