At Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care, we know that deciding whether your coughing dog is an emergency, or they can wait for an appointment with your family veterinarian, can be hard. You may be concerned that your dog has something stuck in their throat, or has a serious respiratory infection. Dog owners also may worry now that their coughing companion has contracted COVID-19, which is highly unlikely. Typically, the reason will be something more common—like kennel cough. Here are the kennel cough basics to help you know more about this canine respiratory disease.

What is kennel cough in dogs?

Kennel cough, also known as canine infectious respiratory disease complex or canine infectious tracheobronchitis, is one of the most common acute respiratory diseases in dogs. Kennel cough causes tracheal and bronchial inflammation, and affects dogs of any age, breed, or sex. Several bacteria and virus strains, including Bordetella bronchiseptica, Mycoplasma canis, Parainfluenza virus, and Adenovirus type 2, are associated with kennel cough, and may occur simultaneously.

What are kennel cough signs in dogs?

If your dog has kennel cough, they may sound like a honking goose, or as if they are trying to hack up a hairball. They often retch at the end of the cough, and many owners become concerned that something is caught in their dog’s throat. Kennel cough signs can also include sneezing or nasal discharge—like a “doggie cold.” Less common signs include fever, lethargy, decreased appetite, and breathing difficulties. Kennel cough in younger or immunocompromised dogs can progress to pneumonia in rare cases. Kennel cough signs are generally less severe than canine influenza.

How do dogs catch kennel cough?

Kennel cough is extremely contagious, and your dog can become infected after exposure to a sick dog, or from contact with contaminated surfaces or people. Dogs often pick up kennel cough from boarding and day-care facilities, dog parks, or other common canine gathering areas. An infected dog may not show kennel cough signs for 2 to 14 days. Dogs who have recovered from kennel cough can still be contagious to other dogs for one to three months.  

How is kennel cough in dogs diagnosed?

A kennel cough diagnosis is based on your dog’s history of possible exposure, clinical signs, and a physical exam. A video of your dog coughing at home can help your veterinarian reach a diagnosis. Your dog may cough more after exercise, or when their throat is pressed. Chest X-rays can help assess disease severity, but can be inconclusive in mild cases. In severe or refractory cases, nasal and throat swab samples can help identify specific bacteria or viruses and allow targeted medical treatment. 

How is kennel cough in dogs treated?

Dogs with mild kennel cough can eventually recover on their own. No treatment is available for the cough’s viral component, but antibiotics are often prescribed to address bacterial infection and speed up recovery. Dogs who are coughing excessively, or cannot sleep comfortably, may need a cough suppressant. Most kennel cough infections resolve in one to three weeks.

In addition to pharmaceutical options, you can help your dog recover more quickly from kennel cough with at-home changes. Run a humidifier to prevent dry air from irritating your pet’s already inflamed airway, and use a harness instead of a collar to help minimize irritation on their throat. 

How can I keep my dog safe from kennel cough?

Like the human cold, you cannot entirely protect your dog from kennel cough, but you can minimize their risk with these steps:

  • Vaccination — Vaccinate your dog for bacteria and viruses that cause kennel cough. Unfortunately, vaccines cannot protect against all disease-causing agents, and the length of immunity can be variable. 
  • Mitigate risk — Avoid day-care and boarding facilities, and dog parks that do not require vaccinations.
  • Hygiene — Wash your hands thoroughly and change your clothing before petting your dog after being around a coughing dog.
  • No sharing — Never let your dog share bedding, bowls, or a kennel with a sick dog.

With proper precautions and appropriate vaccinations, you can greatly reduce your furry pal’s chance of developing an annoying cough.

If your dog has a honking dry cough but is otherwise doing well, we recommend you make an appointment with your family veterinarian to evaluate them for possible kennel cough. However, if your dog is non-stop coughing, having trouble breathing, showing severe disease signs, or your family veterinarian is not available, contact the Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team for triage and immediate medical care.