Kennel Cough

I saw the reason for the visit on the schedule as I was preparing for my afternoon appointments, "Has something stuck in his throat", and I was pretty sure I knew what I would find when I went in the room. At 2:30 Mr. Olsen arrived with "Boomer" and even though I was in the back of the hospital working with a patient I knew which appointment had just arrived because of all the hacking and honking from Boomer that was reverberating through the building.

In the exam room Boomer was enthusiastic and happy as ever, but occasionally had to take breaks from wagging his tail and leaping up vigorously to say hello in order to cough. Mr. Olsen had just gotten back from a visit with family out East over the Fourth of July and when they retrieved Boomer from the dog resort where he had stayed while they were gone he had seemed just fine. It had started with a little cough a few days later, but Boomer was his usual energetic, happy self otherwise, so he wasn’t very worried at first. Last night, however, the honking and hacking and retching went on for hours and the sleep deprivation for both dog and owner had driven them to my practice today. "He keeps acting like there is something stuck in his throat and it is driving him and me crazy. Please get it out so that we all can get some rest at night," implored Mr. Olsen.

After the exam my suspicions were confirmed. Boomer did not have an object in his throat, he had a lovely case of kennel cough. He was going to be fine in the long run, but unfortunately I wasn’t going to be able to instantaneously stop the coughing by magically pulling a foreign object out of his throat.

"Kennel cough" is a general term for contagious upper respiratory disease that results in a hacking cough, and it gets that name because it is commonly seen in situations where lots of dogs are housed together. One infected dog can quickly expose an entire kennel in much the same way kids in daycare share their germs. The most common organism to cause kennel cough is a bacterium called Bordetella. Most dog boarding facilities require vaccination against Bordetella to protect their residents. The vaccine is fairly effective protection against kennel cough caused by the Bordetella organism when it is given with two or more weeks in advance of the time of exposure. Dogs that are vaccinated on their way to the kennel may be technically in compliance on paper, but haven’t had a chance for their immune system to develop a protective response, so they are still at risk for infection. The vaccine comes in a shot form and a form that goes squirted in the nose. The nose squirt may stimulate immunity faster and helps the immune system fight of the disease right at the port of entry, the nasal passages, rather than relying on an immune response from the bloodstream. It sounds like a great idea until you have to wrestle an uncooperative German Shepherd who is determined to lay down his life if necessary in order to prevent you from squirting something in his nose. I have also had a few unlucky patients develop kennel cough from the nasal vaccine itself, which then makes it impossible to get them into a kennel because we have just caused the very problem we were trying to prevent.

Boomer had been appropriately vaccinated against Bordetella before he went to the kennel, so his owner naturally wanted to know why he had gotten kennel cough. It is possible that Boomer’s immune system did not develop a protective response to the vaccine he was given, but more likely was the chance that his coughing was being caused by one of several other viruses or bacteria that cause the same symptoms.

Symptoms of kennel cough usually take 3-5 days to develop after exposure. The classic honking, hacking cough which is often followed by a big retch at the end, lasts for one to two weeks in an average case. Usually the coughing is worse at night and in the morning and better during the day when the dog is moving around. Dogs with kennel cough are usually eating, drinking and acting fairly normal other than the coughing. Sometimes complicating factors will cause kennel cough to develop into pneumonia, which is an infection deeper in the lung tissues. A dog with pneumonia is usually running a fever and feeling rotten. Those patients may need more aggressive care to help them recover.

Boomer went home with some antibiotics to possibly help resolve the coughing, but more realistically to help prevent secondary bacterial infections from piling on and causing a secondary pneumonia. He had instructions to stay at home and not talk to any other dogs until he was done coughing so he could keep his germs to himself. Although all the different causes of kennel cough are highly contagious to other dogs they will not infect other species like people or cats. We talked about the use of cough suppressants if the problem is not resolving in a while, but for now that coughing is helping clear the lungs. This episode is going to be annoying for a while, but he will be just fine in the long run.