The diagnosis that wasn’t: Understanding kennel cough


File photo. File photo.

I’ve completely lost track of how many coughing dogs I’ve seen in the last month or two. They come in honking like geese and hacking up slime. Yup, there’s a nasty case of kennel cough touring Charlottesville, and it seems nobody is safe (well… nobody who happens to be a dog). But wasn’t your dog vaccinated for kennel cough? Why is this thing so hard to keep away? And what do we do about it?

I can’t blame anybody for being confused. Veterinarians have played fast and loose with this terminology for a long time. The truth is that “kennel cough” really doesn’t mean a whole lot. It isn’t a specific diagnosis, so much as a convenient (and charmingly alliterative!) description of the symptoms. When a dog comes in with an upper respiratory cough that we suspect is infectious, we call it kennel cough. Ta-da! Without unnecessarily advanced testing, we have absolutely no idea what’s causing it. By the book, afflicted dogs should be diagnosed as having “infectious tracheobronchitis,” which is as nebulous as it sounds and not as much fun to say. So kennel cough it is.

There is a long list of bacteria and viruses that are candidates for causing kennel cough. Sometimes they act alone, and sometimes they join forces. Somehow, Bordetella bronchiseptica became the reigning king of that list, and the Bordetella vaccine is frequently referred to as the kennel cough vaccine. That’s fair enough—it’s certainly one of the historically prevalent causes. But the important thing to know is that being vaccinated for Bordetella doesn’t protect dogs from the entire list. They are still vulnerable to kennel cough—we’ve just shut one door.

So this…thing that’s been going around lately can be pretty much anything, or maybe a whole collection of them. Maybe it’s Bordetella, and maybe it isn’t. Truth is, it hardly matters. The vast majority of cases are self-limiting, just like when you or I manage to catch a cold. We hack and sputter for a little while, and then our immune systems send it packing. So long as they are otherwise healthy, dogs with kennel cough typically get better in a couple of weeks, and treatment is frequently unnecessary. We do treat some patients, especially if their size or age leaves them uniquely vulnerable to deeper infection, or if symptoms have really become a drag on the patient’s overall comfort. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics, or even a cough suppressant if things are really out of control.

Preventing kennel cough can be a frustrating affair. Most causes are airborne, and can spread rapidly. Vaccination remains important, and has done a lot to limit outbreaks even if it can’t prevent them all. Is it worth keeping your dog away from kennels and daycare? Maybe during an outbreak, or if you have a lot of dogs and don’t want to deal with living in an infirmary for a few weeks. But in general, I recommend that you don’t overthink it. If you send your kids to school, they’re going to catch a cold eventually. And if you send your dog to daycare, he’s bound to catch a cough sometime.

If and when he does, don’t worry too much. It’s just a little case of kennel cough …whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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