Kennel Cough

Stop the cough – kennel cough is at best uncomfortable and at worst fatal

One of the commonest diseases among gundogs, kennel cough is at best uncomfortable and at worst fatal. Vet  REBECCA BAILEY explains the causes and treatment.

Everyone has heard about kennel cough and many of us have owned dogs that suffered from it. We know it is a highly contagious condition, but do we understand it? And more importantly, do we do anything to prevent it?

Firstly, then, what is it?

Kennel cough is caused by a combination of highly infectious viruses and bacteria that will spread rapidly in the air or by direct contact among a group of dogs in the right conditions.  It usually presents with a few days of being off colour, then a hacking cough that starts whenever the dog gets excited or exercises.

The cough usually results in the production of white froth, or mucus, which some owners describe as retching. Generally healthy dogs are not too ill; they may have a mild temperature 103°F (normally 101-101.5°F) and may be a little off their food. The cough will get worse over the first few days then, if untreated, gradually resolve after three to four weeks. In very young or old dogs, or if there is concurrent disease, kennel cough may become more severe and lead to bronchopneumonia. This is very nasty and uncomfortable for the dog and in some cases may result in death.

Predisposing factors for catching and spreading kennel cough:

  • Close contact with other dogs; for instance in kennels, backs of trucks, or at shoots
  • Exercise, excitement and exposure to cold air stimulates the cough and spreads the viruses and bacteria
  • High levels of humidity, such as foggy mornings, warm and poorly ventilated kennels
  • Stress situations such as boarding kennels,or lots of barking
  • Mixing with dogs of uncertain or no vaccination history

What happens to cause the cough?

The virus is inhaled as an aerosol which causes inflammation and damage to the cells lining the windpipe (trachea) and allows the bacterial part of kennel cough to move in. The bacteria are responsible for the paralysis of the small hairs (cilia) that line the airway which normally help to stop dust and foreign particles from entering the lungs.

The combination of the effects of the invaders results in irritation of the wind pipe and therefore the cough. Unfortunately the more the dog coughs, the more damage will occur to the airway, in severe coughing cases the animal’s defences are so poor that there is a chance that bacteria will reach the lungs and a pneumonia will begin. The mucus production from the cough occurs because it is the body’s only way to remove the build up of fluid that is present when the cilia are damaged.

The ‘tracheal pinch’ test

Obviously there are different reasons for why a dog will cough. To decide whether it is due to upper airway irritation (ie. the larynx or windpipe) or a lower airway irritation (ie bronchi or lungs) you can do a gentle test. It is known as the ‘tracheal pinch’ test and involves gentle squeezing of the windpipe behind the larynx.

If the dog coughs when this area is pressed it suggests that there is irritation here. This test is by no means definitive for kennel cough but just allows you to have a better understanding of what part of your dog hurts and therefore how you can help.

Management of kennel cough

The disease usually takes about five days from contact with the viruses and bacteria to the start of the cough. Once the cough is there it is important not to do anything to exacerbate it. Therefore avoid excitement, cause for barking and exercise, especially in cold morning air.

It is logical that every time the dog coughs it is producing an explosion of contagious particles into the air around it, so do not mix it with dogs who are not your own. Unfortunately, by the time the cough is evident, all of your dogs are likely to have been exposed. This usually means that all the dogs will become infected, however in some cases, like people with colds, the odd dog will be lucky and miss out.

I would always take a dog suspected of having kennel cough to the vet. When you arrive at the surgery leave the dog in the car and wait until the vet calls you – try to avoid further spread to any dogs already waiting. In most cases the vet will give the dog something to suppress the cough, this reduces further damage to the airway and allows the body to start the healing process. In many cases, especially those running a temperature, antibiotics will be provided to address the bacterial part of the disease. Unfortunately, as we know with ourselves, a virus must be left to be dealt with by the body’s own immune system.

Remember do not take your dog to meet other dogs until it has completely stopped coughing, this can be anywhere between five days and a month.

Remember do not take your dog to meet other dogs until it has completely stopped coughing (no beating or picking up). Even with treatment, this can be anywhere between five days and a month. Every time the dog coughs it is spreading the disease. If you are boarding your dog or sending it for training, check whether the establishment vaccinates against kennel cough or asks for it before accepting dogs. If not you should get your dog vaccinated at least seven days before it goes in.

Prevention of disease

The normal ‘full’ booster vaccination will protect against most viruses but does not include Bordetella bronchiseptica. The kennel cough vaccination includes Bordetella as one of its components and in some cases also boosts protection against the para-influenza virus. The vaccine will last between six months and a year depending on type of vaccine and the level of exposure to disease. Better protection is obtained by giving the vaccine intra-nasally or up the nose which is generally not a problem for most dogs. There is a small amount of liquid used which is trickled into either one or both nostrils and it helps to stimulate a local protective response in the passages that air will first encounter when it enters the body.

Incidence of disease

Unfortunately a wet, warm summer and winter will allow kennel cough to flourish. The Bordetella bacteria can survive in the environment for months if conditions are favourable. Towards the end of last year there was an outbreak of kennel cough reported in Devon and already this year I have seen more coughing dogs than I can remember.

As a vet it is easy to say ‘get your dog vaccinated’ but I hope that having read this article you will seriously consider doing so, both to protect your dog and to help prevent the spread of kennel cough.

If you are unsure what your dog is already vaccinated against, don’t hesitate to ask your vet – different drug companies use different ways of recording their vaccines so it is not always obvious when checking your record card. Above all, by keeping your dog healthy you should be able to enjoy as many days of the season as possible.

Header Image by Perthshire Picture Agency

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