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‘Kennel Cough’: That honking sound

September 18, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Of all the ailments affecting dogs, pet owners are probably most familiar with "Kennel Cough." There is no mistaking that goose-honking cough in our furry best buddies. With the growing popularity of doggy day cares, dog parks, and doggy playdates, we are seeing an increased number of cases. We also tend to see a seasonal increase during summers and holidays, suggesting that peak times for boarding animals during travel are a risk factor.

How do dogs contract kennel cough? Why are they getting it if they are vaccinated? How can we prevent the spread of this infection? How serious is it? Let's answer those questions and gain a better understanding of this disease.

"Kennel cough" is a layman's term for infectious bronchitis. I am personally recovering from bronchitis as of the writing of this article, and, let me tell you, the coughing gets old really fast! The harsh, hacking cough we hear in our dogs causes many pet owners to believe that their dog swallowed something that is now stuck in his/her throat! In fact, this is the most common description we hear from pet owners when they schedule a sick visit for their coughing dog. Often, the cough is followed by a gag that may produce a liquid "spit up." So, we also hear complaints of coughing and "vomiting."

The term "kennel cough" comes from the prevalence of disease after a dog has spent time in a kennel/boarding facility. However, dogs can contract kennel cough from a variety of sources, and it is not always possible to pinpoint the exact source of their infection. The broad terminology describes symptoms rather than disease, and we know that there are several infectious agents that can be the cause of each dog's cough.

Dogs are exposed to kennel cough through respiratory secretions of other infected dogs. Exposure can occur before the infected dog shows any signs of illness, through coughing, close contact, shared water or food dishes, etc. The incubation time before symptoms begin can vary from two days to two weeks. Symptoms of illness can persist for one to two weeks, and some forms of infection can continue to spread for weeks following symptoms.

Among the bacterial causes, you may recognize the name Bordetella bronchiseptica. This name rings a bell because most "kennel cough vaccines" are effective against Bordetella. However, because Bordetella is not the only culprit of kennel cough, it is very possible for vaccinated dogs to contract kennel cough. Other common pathogens include Parainfluenza virus, Canine Influenza virus, Canine respiratory coronavirus, Mycoplasma, Adenovirus 2, and others. Currently, there are multiple causes of kennel cough for which vaccinations have not yet been developed.

Another thing to understand about immunity is the concept of mucosal immunity versus systemic immunity. With most respiratory agents, the body's first response is mucosal immunity -- the immune system present in the nose and throat that will first come into contact with the pathogen. A dog's systemic immune system then becomes activated with a delay in the response time. When we administer a respiratory vaccine by either nasal or oral administration, we are boosting the mucosal immunity to that pathogen.

Is it worth the trouble and expense to vaccinate our dogs for kennel cough? Yes. Why? Firstly, any immune response is better than no immune response. If the individual dog is exposed to a pathogen for which he/she has mucosal immunity, then there is reason to believe the infection will be less severe, or avoided altogether. Through experience, I will add these dogs seem less likely to develop pneumonia or complications. Most cases of kennel cough are caused by more than one pathogen; ie, Bordetella plus a virus, etc. So, if we can reduce the disease caused by Bordetella, we are one step ahead of the infection and the immune system does not have to work as hard to clear the other pathogens involved.

To best protect your dog, vaccination and awareness are key. I recommend vaccines be current at least one week prior to boarding, grooming, training classes, travel, or play dates. Do see your veterinarian if your dog develops a cough. If coughing, consider your dog to be contagious and isolate them from other dogs during their illness. If you suspect fever, respiratory difficulty, or any more advanced symptoms, please see your veterinarian.

Information for this article was taken in part from "Kennel Cough in Dogs" on veterinarypartner.com.

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