Kennel Cough: Symptoms, Treatments & Prevention

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7 min read

Updated - Oct 13th, 2022

My dog has a hacking cough…does my dog have kennel cough?

If your dog has a hacking cough, what do you need to know? Before you reach for that bottle of Robitussin for your dog, read on!

If your dog has a cough, chances are, someone is going to tell you that your dog has “kennel cough.” But what exactly is kennel cough? Let me fill you in on something. “Kennel cough” is a term that is way overused – and inappropriately used too – even by veterinary medical professionals! Most of the time, this infectious cough is due to a huge complex of diseases and is actually called “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRD).” While that’s a mouthful, the point is that more than one type of organism can cause coughing in dogs. While one of the bacterial organisms that cause kennel cough is Bordetella bronchiseptica, CIRD is made up of several other viruses and bacteria.

Ultimately, any of these infections can cause a canine infectious tracheobronchitis in your dog, meaning that your dog’s upper airway (e.g., mouth, oropharynx, voice box, upper trachea) are really inflamed and irritated. In severe cases, the infection can migrate and progress down to the lower airways (e.g., lungs) resulting in more severe signs (e.g., pneumonia). Also, please be aware that there are other medical causes for coughing, like congestive heart failure, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, etc. and you should always seek veterinary attention to be safe!

What causes “kennel cough?”

The underlying causes/infectious agents for Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease include:

  • Bordetella bronchiseptica (again, informally called “kennel cough”)
  • Canine parainfluenza virus
  • Canine influenza (e.g., H3N8, H3N2)
  • Mycoplasma bacteria
  • Canine adenovirus type 2
  • Canine herpesvirus
  • Canine respiratory coronavirus
  • Streptococcusequi subspecies zooepidemicus bacteria
  • Canine distemper virus (rare, but dependent on vaccine status and outbreaks)
  • Pneumovirus

How did my dog get kennel cough (or more accurately, CIRD)?

Most of the time, your dog caught CIRD directly from the respiratory tract of an infected dog. In other words, by bodily fluids, such as the saliva spray of fluid coming out of a dog’s hacking cough, sneezing, or runny nose! (It’s estimated that the aerosol spray from a dog sneezing can reach 6-12 feet!) If your dog is really “social” and interacts with a lot of other dogs at doggy daycare, puppy classes, dog shows, dog kennels, animal shelters, boarding kennels, or agility training courses, your dog is at increased risk for CIRD.

Younger dogs seem to be more likely to get CIRD, as older dogs have a stronger immune system to protect themselves. Because CIRD is so infectious, your dog can even rarely get it at your veterinary clinic (which is why you often get “triaged” and moved into an exam room immediately, away from the crowded waiting room)! Rarely, other causes of CIRD can be shed from feces (e.g., distemper) or through contained “fomites” (e.g., direct contact with things that can spread it, like community dog water or food bowls, grooming equipment, etc.). 

What are the signs of kennel cough (CIRD) in dogs? 

Symptoms of kennel cough in dogs include:

  • Harsh cough (especially when pulling on a collar) or hacking cough
  • A goose honk or honking cough, especially when light pressure is applied to the trachea (windpipe) area
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Increased respiratory effort
  • Panting all the time
  • Exercise intolerance or shortness of breath on walks
  • Sneezing
  • Gagging/retching
  • Attempting to vomit
  • Eye discharge
  • Nose discharge
  • Decreased appetite progressing to not eating at all
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing to secondary respiratory infection (e.g., pneumonia)
  • Blue gums (rare)
  • Diarrhea (rare)

My dog was just diagnosed with kennel cough (CIRD)! What should I do?

Most of the time, the true diagnosis of “CIRD” is based on history, exposure, clinical symptoms, and physical examination findings from your veterinarian. Thankfully, most dogs diagnosed with CIRD do well. Most of the time, your dog doesn’t require hospitalization, as just supportive care and the “tincture of time” make them better! Most dogs will go home after some fluids under the skin, an oral antibiotic (for about 10-14 days), cough suppressants,* careful monitoring, and strict isolation from other dogs. 

*Before you or your veterinarian start a cough suppressant (like Robitussin, guaifenesin, hydrocodone, etc.), you have to make sure your dog does NOT have pneumonia in the lower airways/lungs. This is because giving a cough suppressant when your dog has pneumonia is really bad for your dog – it could potentially make the pneumonia worse! 

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What tests does my dog need if they’re diagnosed with kennel cough (or CIRD)?

Most of the time, tests aren’t necessary if your dog has a mild, weaker form of CIRD. However, sometimes chest x-rays and other tests are necessary in the following situations:

  • In dogs with signs that aren’t getting better in a few days with oral antibiotics
  • If your dog has more severe signs (e.g., fever, not eating, constantly hacking or coughing, etc.)
  • If it’s a young puppy who has a weak immune system to start

While it’s not SUPER common, in about 10% of cases that I see of CIRD, I can see a severe lower airway pneumonia. This can be life-threatening from difficulty breathing and lack of oxygen. When I do see this severe, secondary pneumonia in the veterinary ER, it’s often in young, immunosuppressed puppies (especially English Bulldog puppies).

With these more severe situations, I  recommend doing blood work to make sure that there’s not a more severe infection that is advancing into the lower airway or lungs (e.g., pneumonia). Specific tests (e.g., a canine respiratory panel) can be done to look for the bacteria or viruses that cause CIRD; this typically involves a throat swap or culture of fluid from the upper airway or lungs (sounds similar to COVID-19 testing!). This is the best way to find out if your dog has CIRD, how infectious your dog may be, or, if there’s a dog flu outbreak in your area. When in doubt, talk to your veterinarian about testing to accurately diagnose CIRD.

What treatment does my dog need if they have severe kennel cough (or CIRD)?

 In severe cases of CIRD, your dog may require hospitalization; if needed, additional therapy may include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • IV fluid therapy
  • IV antibiotics
  • Anti-vomiting medication
  • Antitussives (e.g., cough suppressants) if pneumonia is absent
  • Nebulization and coupage to help break up the pneumonia in the lungs
  • Nutritional support
  • Isolation away from other dogs

So, what can I do at home if my dog has kennel cough (or CIRD)?

  • Buy a humidifier. If your dog sleeps with you, consider using a humidifier in the bedroom to help hydrate the nasal passages. This will make it easier to wipe away the nose crusts!
  • Use an antitussive (anti-coughing medication) ONLY if approved by your veterinarian.
  • Quarantine time! As CIRD is highly infectious, you want to keep your dog away from dog parks, doggy daycare, kennels, veterinary hospitals, etc. In fact, please don’t take your dog off your property for a full 2-6 weeks, as the causes of CIRD are so contagious to other dogs!

Again, while it’s rare for your dog to get really sick from kennel cough or CIRD, please know that you should always visit a veterinarian to be safe.

Prognosis & Prevention

The prognosis for kennel cough or CIRD in dogs is good with supportive care. Try the home remedies above if you think your dog has a mild case of infectious kennel cough/CIRD, but if in doubt, take your dog to the veterinarian.

Also, remember that keeping your dog up to date on vaccines that help protect them and keep them healthy is the best way to prevent CIRD to begin with. Several of the causes of CIRD are preventable with vaccination including Bordetella, parainfluenza and dog flu. Again, this is especially important if your dog is a social dog! This is one of the reasons why boarding facilities require that your dog be up to date on vaccines prior to being kenneled. Please be aware that there are several types of vaccines, including an intranasal or oral Bordetella vaccine. Personally, I prefer the intranasal ones that also protect for parainfluenza, as these protect the area needed the most (e.g., the nose!) and creates “local immunity.”

When it comes to our four-legged family members, it’s not worth the risk of your dog getting sick – even if it’s just a mild case!

Dr. Justine Lee

Veterinary Specialist in Emergency Care & Toxicology, Writer
Dr. Lee, DACVECC, DABT is a board-certified veterinary specialist in emergency care (DACVECC) & toxicology (DABT).
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