How To Spot Kennel Cough in Your Dog

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8 min read
8 min read

Updated - Mar 29th, 2023

Key Points

  • Kennel cough can show as a persistent, dry and raspy cough or a cough that sounds like goose honking.
  • Usually, a mild case of kennel cough will subside with prescribed antibiotics or cough suppressants.
  • If your dog’s symptoms worsen or they do not respond to medication, further testing may be needed to rule out pneumonia or other serious illnesses.
  • The best way to prevent kennel cough is to keep up with your dog’s vaccinations!

Does your pup have a persistent cough? Are they panting and sneezing? If so, your dog could have kennel cough.

Now, it’s not uncommon for dogs to cough when they’re excited, but if coughing persists without an obvious cause, it’s time to investigate. That’s why we’ve asked veterinarian, Dr. Justine Lee, to share what she knows about the symptoms, treatment, and prevention of kennel cough. Read on!

What is kennel cough?

What exactly is kennel cough? Let me fill you in on something. “Kennel cough” is an overused and inappropriately used term, even by veterinary medical professionals. Most of the time, this infectious cough is due to a huge complex of diseases and is actually called the “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC).”

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 canine infectious tracheobronchitis. This disease affects your dog’s upper airways, such as the mouth, oropharynx, voice box, and upper trachea.

In severe cases, the infection can migrate to the lower airways (e.g., lungs), resulting in more severe signs like pneumonia. Also, please know that there are other medical causes for coughing so you should always seek veterinary attention to be safe.

What causes kennel cough?

Your pup can catch kennel cough by inhaling bacteria or viruses from an infected dog. The disease can even be passed through shared objects like toys or bowls.

Unfortunately, your beloved pooch can’t exactly practice social distancing, and crowded areas like animal shelters, boarding kennels, and dog parks can be hotspots for this illness.

Other underlying causes or 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)
  • Canine Pneumovirus

How do dogs get kennel cough? 

Kennel cough or CIRD is typically airborne and can linger on surfaces. This means dogs in crowded environments like dog parks, pet boarding facilities, and grooming salons are more susceptible.

Think of it like kids getting sick at daycare – if they’re all in the same room sharing toys and breathing the same air, it’s bound to spread. The same goes for your pups!

The disease is incredibly contagious, so much so that even a visit to the vet can expose your dog to it. That’s why you and your pup often get whisked to a private exam room straightaway rather than sitting in the crowded waiting area.

In rare cases, other causes of CIRD can be spread through feces (like distemper) or direct contact with contaminated objects like shared water, food bowls, and grooming tools.

What are the symptoms of kennel cough in dogs?

The tell-tale sign of kennel cough in dogs is a persistent, raspy, dry cough caused by pathogens that inflame the airways. These coughing fits are particularly common at night.

However, as the disease progresses, coughing fits can happen throughout the day too. If your dog has kennel cough, they might also display other symptoms, such as:

  • 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 aka throat 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
  • Runny nose
  • Nose discharge
  • Decreased appetite progressing to not eating at all
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing to secondary respiratory infection (e.g., pneumonia)
  • Blue gums (rare)

How veterinarians diagnose kennel cough

Usually, vets can make a presumptive diagnosis of kennel cough by observing the dog’s symptoms, medical history, and response to treatment. It’s not always necessary to identify the specific virus causing the cough.

However, diagnostic testing may be recommended if the dog shows signs of pneumonia, doesn’t respond to initial treatment, has systemic illness symptoms, or if an outbreak affects multiple dogs.

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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 required 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 symptoms (e.g., fever, not eating, constant hacking or coughing, etc.)
  • If it’s a young puppy who has a weak immune system to start

While it’s not super common, about 10% of the CIRD cases I see have severe lower airway pneumonia. And it is often common in young, immunosuppressed puppies (especially English Bulldog puppies).

I recommend blood work to rule out pneumonia in these severe cases. Dog parents can also run specific tests (e.g., a canine respiratory panel) to look for CIRD-causing bacteria or viruses in their dogs. It typically involves a throat swap or culture of fluid from the upper airway or lungs.

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.

Kennel cough treatment

If your dog has kennel cough, it’s best to keep them away from other pets and make an appointment with your veterinarian. Your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatories, cough suppressants, and steroids to help soothe your furry friend’s symptoms. In some cases, antibiotics might be necessary to kill the Bordetella bacteria that often causes kennel cough.

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 pneumonia in the lungs
  • Nutritional support
  • Isolation away from other dogs

Home remedies for kennel cough in dogs

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!


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!

Let your dog rest

Rest is key to helping your furry friend recover from kennel cough. While your pup is on the mend, try to scale back their usual dog exercise routine. Taking it easy can help them heal and lessen those coughing fits.

Try honey water

No doubt, honey is a natural throat and cough soother. But can your dog eat honey? The answer is yes – in small quantities. Mix half a tablespoon or one tablespoon of honey with warm water and serve it to your furry friend. Offer this delicious concoction up to three times daily, depending on how often your dog coughs.

Kennel cough in dogs: Prognosis & prevention

The prognosis for kennel cough or CIRD in dogs is good with supportive care. You can try the home remedies mentioned above for mild cases of kennel cough as it will usually pass on its own. However, it’s always a good idea to take your furry friend to the veterinarian to be safe.

Also, remember that vaccinating your dog is the best way to prevent CIRD and keep them healthy. Vaccines can prevent many of the causes of CIRD, including Bordetella, parainfluenza, and dog flu. So, vaccinating your dog is especially crucial if they’re social and frequently interact with other dogs. That’s why boarding facilities often require up-to-date puppy vaccinations to keep all dogs safe and healthy.

Just a heads up that different types of vaccines are available, such as the intranasal or oral Bordetella vaccine. I recommend the intranasal vaccine because it also protects against parainfluenza. It’s especially effective because it creates “local immunity” in the area your dog needs it most – the nose!


Is kennel cough fatal?

Kennel cough can be serious for some dogs, but most recover without complications. However, some dogs, especially those with weakened immune systems, can develop life-threatening pneumonia.

This includes puppies that are not fully vaccinated, older dogs with weakened immune systems, pregnant dogs, and dogs with pre-existing respiratory conditions. So if you suspect your dog has kennel cough, it’s important to get them checked out by a veterinarian.

How long does kennel cough last?

Kennel cough typically lasts for 1-3 weeks, but can last longer in some cases. If you’re concerned about your pet’s health, it’s always best to consult with a veterinarian.

What is the fastest way to cure kennel cough?

There is no one-size-fits-all cure for kennel cough. However, supportive care such as rest, medication, and home remedies like honey can help speed up recovery. It’s best to consult your veterinarian for your pet’s best treatment plan.

What can be confused with kennel cough?

Respiratory diseases like the canine influenza virus, pneumonia, heart disease, and bronchitis can be confused with kennel cough since they start with symptoms similar to kennel cough. It’s important to consult a veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Can I give my dog human medicine for kennel cough?

Giving your dog human medicine for kennel cough without consulting a veterinarian is not recommended as some human medications can be harmful to dogs.


Dr. Justine Lee

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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