Kennel Cough in Dogs: Causes & Symptoms

Dr. Jason Gagné, DVM, DACVIM
By Dr. Jason Gagné, DVM, DACVIM
Updated: 5/30/20242-4 minutes
Kennel Cough in Dogs Hero

Many dogs get kennel cough throughout their lives. It’s a common infection of the respiratory system with symptoms like coughing and hacking and can affect all breeds.

While you should take it seriously, remember the illness is treatable and may even clear up on its own. In many cases, dogs’ behavior doesn’t change. They continue to eat their food and play as they normally would.

Here’s what you need to know about the causes of kennel cough in dogs, how it spreads and recommendations for treating it.

What Is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough is the common name for canine infectious tracheobronchitis. It’s a respiratory infection in dogs caused by a wide range of bacteria and viruses. Kennel cough is highly contagious, and the main symptom is a harsh, hacking cough.

Kennel cough creates an inflammation of the dog’s upper respiratory tract, including the trachea (windpipe) and larynx (voice box).

What Causes Kennel Cough in Dogs?

The illness can be caused by different bacteria, viruses or a combination of both. Dogs become infected when they inhale these bacteria or virus particles into their respiratory tract.

The most common cause is a bacterial strain called Bordetella bronchiseptica, which is why some people call kennel cough Bordetella.

Dogs are more likely to be infected by Bordetella when their immune system is weakened, sometimes as a result of a viral infection. Severe stress, even when it’s a “good” stress from increased play and activity or being around more dogs than usual, can also lead to kennel cough.

Some viruses known to make dogs more susceptible to kennel cough include canine adenovirus, canine distemper virus, canine herpes, parainfluenza virus and canine reovirus.

What Are the Symptoms?

The main symptom of kennel cough is frequent, forceful coughing. Some canines will also experience sneezing, a runny nose or eye discharge.

What Does Kennel Cough Sound Like?

The cough can sometimes sound like your dog has something stuck in their throat. It can be dry and hoarse or produce mucus, which the dog often tries to swallow. Some describe it as a “goose-honk” cough. It doesn’t sound like a sneeze or reverse-sneeze.

How Do Dogs Get Kennel Cough?

Many dogs are exposed to infection in shelters and kennels, which is where the illness gets its name.

Here are some factors that increase the chances of kennel cough infection:

  • Being around other dogs who have kennel cough
  • Being confined to crowded conditions
  • Poor ventilation
  • Cold temperatures
  • Exposure to dust or cigarette smoke
  • Travel-induced stress

How Does it Spread?

Kennel cough is highly contagious and can easily be spread from one dog to another. When dogs cough, the bacteria and viruses become airborne and can quickly spread to other animals, especially if they play with or sniff each other. It can also be transmitted in dog toys, food bowls or other shared objects.

If you think your dog has the illness, keep them away from other animals to limit the spread.

What Is the Incubation Period?

The incubation period is between 2 and 14 days, during which time the dog will be contagious. Some dogs can be carriers for months without showing symptoms.

How Long Does it Last?

Kennel cough usually clears up within three weeks. Sometimes it can take up to six weeks to subside for older dogs or those with existing medial conditions.

In very rare cases, the illness can progress to pneumonia, so contact your veterinarian if your dog’s condition doesn’t improve.

What Is the Treatment for Kennel Cough?

If your dog has kennel cough but otherwise seems happy, maintains a normal appetite for food and treats, and can be comfortably isolated from other pets in your home, you may not need to seek treatment.

If you are worried about your dog, take them to see your veterinarian. Let them know ahead of time that your pet may have kennel cough, so they can minimize the risk to other animals.

The veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics for kennel cough to target the Bordetella bacteria. If needed, they may also prescribe a canine cough medicine or an anti-inflammatory to soothe your dog’s throat.

How to Care for Your Dog With Kennel Cough

Whether you treat your dog with medication or wait for the illness to pass on its own, there are a few actions you can take to make them more comfortable.

Consider using a humidifier in the room where your pet spends the most time. Humid air may reduce your dog’s dry, uncomfortable cough. Removing their collar is also a good idea as it can aggravate the trachea and cause more coughing. (For walks, try a harness instead.)

Is There a Kennel Cough Vaccine?

Protection against some of the viruses that cause kennel cough is included in puppy and annual vaccinations. These viruses include canine influenza, canine distemper, canine parainfluenza virus and canine adenovirus type two.

Your veterinarian can also provide a vaccination against Bordetella, the leading cause of kennel cough. Many boarding kennels require dogs to have the vaccination before their stay.

Note that because kennel cough has a wide range of causes and strains, the Bordetella vaccine cannot guarantee protection for your dog but does usually lessen the symptoms and shorten the condition if they do get infected.

Can Humans Get Kennel Cough?

Bordetella bronchiseptica, the main bacteria that causes kennel cough, can infect humans, though this is very rare and only a risk factor for people with weakened immune systems. Most people don’t need to worry about contracting the bacteria from animals.

Get more tips about your dog’s health from our pet experts, or visit our Pet Expertise page.

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