As the weather starts to cool down and we get into the rainy fall season we begin to see and hear a lot more colds and coughs in people and their pets.  The change in weather can be stressful on your pets immune system and increases their chances of catching kennel cough and colds.  Around late September and extending to December we see a dramatic increase in the number of coughing and sneezing pets.   If you’re noticing these signs in your dog or cat they may be another victim of the dreaded common cold!

Coughing | Is It Kennel Cough?

Dog owners often mention that it sounds like there’s “something stuck in the throat” or a “dry, hacking cough”.  Coughing will often be in bursts and can worsen with excitement and pulling on the leash.  Coughs may be either productive or dry.  With a productive cough you may notice foaming, gagging, or swallowing following the cough.  In dogs with kennel cough rubbing the trachea (windpipe) can provoke a cough, since the windpipe is irritated by the infection.

This video is of a dog with kennel cough.  He has a productive cough that you can notice at the end of the last coughing fit.  This is him bringing up phlegm and swallowing it.  Very gross.

Not all coughing is kennel cough!  Be especially cautious with diagnosing your dogs cough in these instances;

  • Small or toy breed dogs (Yorkies, Maltese, Toy Poodles, etc.)
  • Puppies under 12 months
  • Newly acquired pets
  • Older dogs (greater than 7)
  • Known heart condition
  • Suspected poisoning (especially rat poison)
  • Any symptoms of general illness such as lethargy, loss of appetite, or vomiting

Please consult with your veterinarian about the cause of coughing if you have a dog that fits into one of these categories.

dog with scarf

If your pet is lethargic, has a loss of appetite, or is vomiting, contact your vet.

What is Kennel Cough? | Cause(s) of Kennel Cough

Kennel cough is known more affectionately by veterinarians as infectious tracheobronchitis.  This is a catch-all term for an infection of the windpipe and bronchi (smaller airways) that is causing inflammation or irritation.  Essentially this is the answer to the question, what is kennel cough?  Or, more simply kennel cough is a chest cold for dogs.

The question, what is kennel cough, does not have a simple answer.  Most respiratory infections are not caused by a single bug.  Typically kennel cough is caused by a disease complex involving many different viruses and bacteria that are working together in a giant conspiracy to make your dog cough.  Most chest colds, such as kennel cough, are caused by disease complexes in most animals, including people, dogs and cats.

Bordetella bronchiseptica is traditionally thought of as the bacteria that causes most of the damage in cases of kennel cough.  This is a similar bacterium to bordetella pertussis, which causes “whooping cough” in people.  Antibiotics that are effective against this bacterium are often used to hasten recovery from kennel cough.

How Contagious is Kennel Cough?

Now that you know what kennel cough is, you might be wondering if you can catch it.  You’ll then be happy to know that people cannot catch kennel cough, unless they have weakened immune systems (very young, very old, or certain medical conditions).  Dogs are a different story, as kennel cough can be spread to other dogs quite easily.  It can also be spread to cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and pigs though it is not as infectious as it would be to other dogs.

Dog with Surgical Mask

Kennel cough is contagious to other dogs for 2-3 weeks.

Since the bug that is causing kennel cough is not necessarily one particular bug it’s impossible to say exactly how long an animal is contagious for.  Most of the time kennel cough runs its course in 2-3 weeks and then your dog is no longer contagious.  However, there have been reports of Bordetella bronchiseptica being contagious for up to 3 months and some dogs can be carriers without every showing any symptoms.

Coughing dogs should not go to kennels, dog parks, groomers, or other places where dogs frequent.  Once your dog starts coughing, 2 weeks of isolation is often enough to prevent the spread of kennel cough.  Ensure that your pet is no longer coughing before bringing them to their favorite dog hang outs again.  Antibiotics can help to shorten the contagious period.

 Risk Factors for Catching Kennel Cough

Certain pets can be more susceptible to developing kennel cough.  These risk factors include;

  • going to kennels, parks, or other areas with lots of dogs
  • allergies and exposure to smoke and dust
  • climate and fall weather in Toronto and Southern Ontario
  • stress

Some breeds and ages of pets are also more susceptible to having kennel cough progress to a more serious pneumonia.  With these types of dogs, veterinary attention is recommended if coughing is persistent.  Susceptible dogs include;

  • Puppies under  12 months old
  • Newly acquired puppies
  • Brachycephalic or smush-faced dogs (bulldogs, pugs, shih-tzu, etc.)

 How Do I Treat It?

Usually kennel cough will get better on its own, over the course of a week.  Most cases are mild and dogs should continue to play and eat without a hitch, except for that nasty cough.  Signs that your dog should receive veterinary attention are lethargy or lack of energy, loss of appetite, and other signs not related to coughing, like vomiting.  If the cough continues for more than a week and is not improving then your pet should be looked at by a veterinarian.

Treatment of kennel cough typically consists of cough medicine to let your pet sleep through the night and potentially antibiotics.  If your dog is exhibiting any signs of illness other than coughing, antibiotics will often be prescribed.  An antibiotic that is effective against Bordetella (doxycycline) is often selected.  Even if Bordetella is not the main offending organism, an antibiotic is often enough to allow the body’s own immune system to win the fight against those cough causing bugs.

Do not give cough medicine to your pet without consulting a veterinarian.  Your pet may have other signs of a more serious illness that you could hide with cough medicine.  Be careful with giving too much cough medicine if your dog doesn’t appear to be improving.  Cough medicine can mask symptoms and make matters worse if not used judiciously.

 Keeping Your Dog Comfortable

Switching from a leash to a harness will stop you from putting pressure on your pets’ irritated windpipe.  This will prevent any human induced coughing on walks, especially with those pullers’.  If your dog has a dry cough then a humidifier can help to speed up recovery.  Turning on the shower and letting your pet hangout in the bathroom is another way to pump up the humidity.

 Vaccinating for Kennel Cough

Three different types of vaccines exist against kennel cough.  Most of these vaccines target solely Bordetella bronchiseptica but some also target other bugs in the respiratory disease complex.  The three different types of vaccines are oral, intranasal (up the nose), and injectable.  Oral and intranasal vaccines can take effect in as little as 3-5 days, which can be helpful for those last second boarding arrangements.

Vaccination does not prevent kennel cough but does make the symptoms less severe if your pet is afflicted.  Many dog boarding kennels nowadays require up to date vaccinations for kennel cough to prevent the spread of the disease through boarding animals.  Be sure to check for this prior to leaving for your next vacation.


That’s the 411 on what is kennel cough.  Hopefully this sheds some light on some noises you may have been hearing from your own dog.  Remember, most healthy dogs eat great and have loads of energy.  If you notice uncharacteristic sluggishness or loss of appetite in your coughing dog, this is your cue to give your vet a call.  For other fall season pet health concerns, check out our recent article on fleas.

Hope this helps,

Dr. Tim Julian