by Susan McCullough
Oct. 2009

As the owner of both a dog day care facility and a boarding kennel in Virginia, Laura Sharkey works hard to keep the dogs in her care free of injury and disease. One disease she doesn’t really worry about? A condition called kennel cough. In fact, she doesn’t even require the dogs she cares for to be immunized against it.
Kennel cough is a relatively innocuous illness that is rarely fatal or even serious,” says Sharkey. “It would be more accurate to call it social dog cough.”

What Kennel Cough Really Is
What’s commonly called kennel cough is actually “a condition that’s associated with intensive confinement circumstances,” explains Kate Hurley, DVM, head of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Those circumstances include kennels, animal shelters, doggie day cares, dog parks and grooming facilities.
This upper respiratory problem can be triggered by a number of different agents, including several types of bacteria that belong to a kind of family called bordetella. “Bordetella is one of the most common players in kennel cough,” says Hurley. “But there are many other players as well.”
Does the usually mild nature of this condition mean that its symptoms should be ignored? Not necessarily. The trick is to know which symptoms are relatively benign and which indicate more serious trouble.
Serious Symptoms
A dog that’s experiencing a honking cough and discharge from its nose and eyes may have an uncomplicated respiratory infection that will clear up on its own. But if your dog is also lethargic, not eating or feverish, see your veterinarian. Such signs indicate that your dog may have a more serious illness, such as distemper, parainfluenza or canine influenza.
Take Action
Here are four steps to take to protect your dog from kennel cough or treat your already diagnosed pup:
1. Vaccinate appropriately Not every dog needs a vaccination against bordetella. For example, a healthy adult dog that spends little or no time with other dogs probably can forego the vaccine. But for dogs that regularly get groomed professionally, visit doggie day cares and dog parks, or are boarded at kennels, Hurley suggests a yearly bordetella vaccination. “Vaccinations for other conditions such as distemper, parvovirus and parainfluenza provide long-term protection and need to be given only once every three years,” explains Hurley. “But bordetella vaccine does not provide such protection, which is why dogs at risk need it every year.”
2. Know the limits Even a vaccinated dog may develop a respiratory condition. “Most vaccines for respiratory disease reduce the severity of the signs of those diseases but don’t alleviate them completely,” says Hurley.
3. ID your dog Hurley says that proper identification is the best way to protect a dog from kennel cough or other respiratory infection. “Get your dog an identification tag and a microchip,” she suggests. “That way, if your dog gets lost, the person or shelter who finds him can contact you quickly, greatly reducing your dog’s risk of being in the shelter long enough to be exposed to kennel cough.”
4. Limit exposure to other dogs If your dog gets infected, follow the guidelines set by your dog day care operator or boarding kennel to protect other dogs. At Sharkey’s day care facility, staffers recognize symptoms, quarantine dogs that are suspected of being ill and alert the dogs’ owners that their dogs cannot return to day care until they are cleared by a veterinarian.
If your dog does come down with kennel cough, don’t panic. Follow the advice of our experts, seek veterinary treatment and try to ride out the two to three weeks of ear-splitting canine coughs associated with the dreaded illness.