Infectious Tracheobronchitis or “Kennel Cough” By Laura McLain Madsen, DVM

“Kennel cough” is a generic term, and rather misleading. It is a contagious illness, but dogs don’t just get it at kennels. They can get it anywhere—at doggy day care, at the pet store, at the park, walking around the block, or even in their own backyards—so “infectious tracheobronchitis” (ITB) or “canine infectious respiratory disease” (CIRD) are better terms.

There are many different infections that target the respiratory tract in dogs. These include viruses (adenovirus, parainfluenza, reovirus, respiratory coronavirus, and others) and bacteria (Bordetella, Mycoplasma, Strep, and others). There may be multiple causes of infection in a single dog.

Vaccines are available against some of the viruses and bacteria but not all of them. Many dog owners think Bordetella is the only cause of canine cough, and assume that if their dog has received its Bordetella vaccine that it will be immune. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. A vaccinated dog may be coughing because:

  • It was infected by a different virus or bacteria that isn’t covered by the vaccine.
  • No vaccine is 100% effective so occasional infections will still occur.
  • It is coughing from a non-infectious cause, like heart problems or bronchitis.

Symptoms of ITB are usually mild. The dog will have a hacking or gagging type of cough that people often describe as “like he has a bone stuck in his throat” or “like she’s trying to hack up a hairball.” Apart from the cough, the dogs usually feel fine, and are active and eating. In rare cases, the infection is more severe and leads to pneumonia, with fever, lethargy, difficulty breathing, and loss of appetite.

Most cases of ITB can be treated symptomatically with oral antibiotics and cough suppressants. Even with treatment, the cough may persist for 2-3 weeks. In severe cases, dogs may need to be hospitalized to receive intravenous fluids, intravenous antibiotics, and oxygen therapy.

Bordetella vaccines are usually given in combination with adenovirus and/or parainfluenza to protect against more causes of cough. The vaccine may be administered by injection, by drops into the nostrils, or by drops into the mouth, depending on your veterinarian’s preference. Even though the Bordetella vaccine isn’t 100% effective, it is still beneficial for dogs who are around other dogs. If you’ll be boarding your dog, a booster vaccine is recommended at least 1-2 weeks before boarding to ensure maximum protection.


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