Pet pescription: Why is my dog coughing: Kennel cough?

The Western Slope has seen a large number of cases of coughing dogs this year, and while some causes of coughing may be fairly harmless and self-limiting, it may be an indication of a much more serious underlying condition such as heart disease, heart worm infection or pneumonia. Therefore, it is recommended that all coughing dogs be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Infectious bronchitis, or kennel cough, has numerous causative agents including the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, the viruses Para influenza, Adenovirus type II, canine distemper, canine influenza, canine herpes, canine reovirus and the non-viral, non-bacterium Mycoplasma canis.

It also may be a combination of two or more of these.

The name “kennel cough” leads to the unfortunate misconception that if a dog doesn’t board it doesn’t need to be vaccinated against kennel cough.

The reality is, while outbreaks in kennels do occur, the majority of outbreaks are seen at dog parks and other social settings where dogs congregate.

Typical kennel cough infections produce a harsh, hacking cough often described as a goose honk. It is usually a non-productive cough but can be so strong as to cause dogs to hack up white, foamy phlegm. Sometimes owners think that their pet is trying to cough something up or has something stuck in its throat.

Dogs with kennel cough typically remain active and happy and have no other changes in their condition.

Bordetella bronchiseptica has an incubation period of two to 14 days. The cough may be very mild, last one to two weeks, and require no treatment or, more frequently, will produce a cough severe enough as to require antibiotics and cough suppressants.

More serious cases can progress to a life-threatening pneumonia if left untreated.

It is difficult to know how long a dog remains contagious with kennel cough because that depends partly on the underlying cause — viral or bacterial.

The general belief is that if Bordetella is involved, then a dog remains infectious for two to three weeks after symptoms have resolved. In addition, the organism may live in the environment for up to 3 months.

Treatment of kennel cough will generally involve the use of antibiotics effective against Bordetella bronchiseptica as well as cough suppressants to reduce a dog’s discomfort while the disease runs its course.

Antibiotics may speed the course of the disease and may help to prevent a secondary pneumonia from developing.

The simplest way to reduce your dog’s risk is to keep it up to date on vaccinations for the major viral and bacterial causes of the disease.

The four-way distemper-parvovirus vaccine also includes Adenovirus type II and Para influenza. This vaccine is given to puppies at 8, 12, and 16 weeks and 1 year and then boosters every three years.

Canine influenza is a yearly vaccine while Bordetella bronchiseptica is given annually, or biannually if your dog is visiting a kennel, groomer or frequents dog parks.

Bordetella is best given as early as 8 weeks of age first as an intranasal vaccine that promotes a faster immune response (four days) followed by an injectable booster.

Don’t be surprised if you are asked to keep your coughing dog in your car rather than bringing it into the veterinary office until an initial exam can be done. This is a safety measure to prevent the highly contagious infectious bronchitis from spreading through the clinic.

The take-away message is that any cough should be taken seriously and preventive care is always your best friend’s best friend.

Drs. Tom and Tara Suplizio own Animal Medical Clinic in Grand Junction. The Suplizios are graduates of the Colorado State University Veterinary School. Email them at


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