I think my dog has kennel cough, now what?

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Most dog parents have heard of kennel cough and are relieved to learn it’s usually not serious, but it can still be overwhelming when it’s your dog who gets it. After all, the associated coughing episodes can be severe and it’s hard to watch your dog suffer for the week or so needed for kennel cough to run its course. So how can you keep your dog from getting sick in the first place? And what do you do if you suspect they already have kennel cough? Keep reading to find out how to recognize and prevent kennel cough, plus how to help your dog recover if they already have it.

What is Kennel Cough and How Does it Spread?

“Kennel cough” is a general term referring to a group of canine infectious respiratory diseases. These conditions are referred to collectively as kennel cough because they spread rapidly in places like grooming and boarding facilities or dog parks. Your dog can pick it up anywhere, but most cases happen after your dog has been near an infected dog or had contact with contaminated objects.

The current medical name for kennel cough in veterinary circles is canine infectious respiratory disease complex, or CIRD. It was previously referred to as canine infectious tracheobronichitis. Confused yet? Veterinary medicine is constantly evolving as we learn more, and CIRD is no exception. Our current understanding is that this condition is caused by one or more of several different infectious agents including bacteria and viruses. CIRD is highly contagious and can spread through the air, making it extremely infectious in canine social situations. CIRD can also spread when items such as dishes, toys, or bedding are shared between dogs. Shared objects may become contaminated with the aerosolized droplets produced by an infected coughing dog. Keep in mind that even if you limit your dog’s social exposure to other animals, your pet may still contract kennel cough and you may not be able to determine the source of the infection at all.

Kennel Cough Prevention

Even though kennel cough is not usually a serious disease, it’s still unpleasant to go through. Dogs with underlying health conditions, older dogs, and very young dogs tend to have more severe symptoms when they contract a kennel cough infection. No matter what your dog’s individual risk factors may be, there are steps you can take to protect your pet.

  • Watch for symptoms in other dogs: If you notice a dog in your social circle or out in the community is coughing, keep your own dog away. Vigilance is the first step of prevention.
  • Minimize social exposure: Many dog parents rely on dog daycare, dog parks, and other social environments to help care for their dog. Try to minimize the amount of time your dog is exposed to large groups of unknown animals. Use a reliable, reputable daycare with clear vaccination requirements and sick day policies to ensure all of your dog’s playtime with other dogs is safe and fun for all.
  • Be responsible: if your own dog is showing symptoms of kennel cough, keep him at home. Don’t expose other dogs to his potentially contagious symptoms unnecessarily. Talk to your Vetster vet if you think your dog might have kennel cough
  • Vaccination: there are vaccines for kennel cough, but it is important to note that these vaccines only target one bacteria type associated with the disease. Vaccines targeting kennel cough infections have an excellent safety profile and most dogs are suitable candidates to receive them. Talk to your vet to see if vaccination against kennel cough is right for your dog and what the recommended booster schedule is. If you decide to vaccinate, keep in mind vaccination is not a “magic bullet.” Social controls should still be put in place to protect your dog and others. A dog who’s been vaccinated can still contract kennel cough, but it’s reasonable to be hopeful a vaccinated dog won’t get as sick and will recover more quickly

Symptoms and Treatment of Kennel Cough

Most cases of kennel cough are uncomplicated and require no medical intervention. A run-of-the-mill case of kennel cough is expected to run its course within 2 weeks or less. The primary symptom of kennel cough is episodes of a loud “honking” type of cough. Pet parents commonly report that this cough sounds as if the dog has something stuck in his throat, but it’s clear that he doesn’t because he’s still able to eat and drink between episodes. Even though the coughing can sound quite severe, a dog with kennel cough usually doesn’t develop more serious symptoms. A mild reduction in appetite and energy level are to be expected, but a dog with kennel cough will usually still eat and play every day.

There are differing opinions in the veterinary community about what the best approach to treatment is. It is difficult to determine what kind of therapy will be effective for an illness that’s caused by so many different types of infectious agents. For example, if your dog’s case of kennel cough is due to a virus, antibiotics won’t be helpful because they only work against bacteria. Additionally, using a cough suppressant can make some forms of kennel cough worse.

If your dog has a cough and develops more severe symptoms like fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, nasal congestion and discharge, he may need more aggressive medical attention. Regardless of the severity and scope of any symptoms your dog is showing, talk to a veterinarian if your dog develops a cough. In some cases, something that appears to be kennel cough at the outset can develop into a more serious condition like pneumonia, so don't delay seeking professional advice to assess and manage your dog’s cough.

Four ways to help your dog recover quickly

Here are four ways to help your dog if they develop a cough

1. Consult a professional

Don’t wait until your dog’s symptoms escalate to get professional help. If the veterinary team suspects kennel cough when you call to request an appointment, they may request you follow isolation protocols during your visit due to the high transmissibility of kennel cough. Booking an online virtual care appointment to inquire about your dog’s situation can be a great way to get an assessment without putting other dogs at risk. In many cases diagnostic tests and treatment are not indicated for a dog who is suspected of having kennel cough. If your dog’s symptoms do warrant treatment, follow the recommendations made by your veterinarian and follow up if symptoms do not appear to resolve in 2 weeks or less.

2. Isolate your dog

As soon as your dog shows symptoms of kennel cough you should isolate them to prevent the potential spread to other dogs. Isolation within the household can also help to lessen the spread of bacteria and viruses via objects in your home that may be difficult to sanitize.

3. Encourage rest

Make sure your dog gets enough rest. Take shorter walks while they are recovering and decrease exercise overall. This should reduce the overall coughing and respiratory irritation they experience.

4. Stop using a collar

Whether or not your dog normally uses a collar, it is recommended to switch to a harness while they have symptoms of kennel cough. A collar can irritate the throat due to pressure around the neck and may cause additional coughing.

These strategies won’t eliminate your dog’s cough, but they can help. Even if you take steps to reduce the risk of kennel cough -like keeping your dog vaccinated and avoiding kennels and dog parks- this is something many dogs will experience during their lives, some more than once. If your young and otherwise healthy dog develops a cough after a trip to doggy daycare, odds are good it’s kennel cough. It’s important to remember that coughing can be associated with a variety of different illnesses, so don’t self-diagnose your pet. Take your dog’s cough seriously and talk to a veterinarian to determine the best course of action. It might not feel like it when your dog’s coughing fits are waking up everyone in the house, but it’s reassuring to know kennel cough is usually relatively mild and goes away without any specific treatment.