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Would you know how to spot the early signs of kennel cough in your dog? Could you distinguish kennel cough from canine influenza?

If your dog has previously had kennel cough — which is also known as infectious tracheobronchitis but is in fact usually a combination of a bacterium and a virus — the signs are easy to spot, and you’ll know to get your furry friend to the vet, stat. Bordetella bronchiseptica, and a bacterium named Mycoplasma are the most common bacterial causes of kennel cough, whereas viral causes of kennel cough include canine parainfluenza virus, canine adenovirus-2.

If your pet has not yet experienced this infection, the signs of kennel cough can go unnoticed for several days or could be put down simply to canine influenza, a virus which often resembles kennel cough.

Symptoms of kennel cough don’t appear immediately after transmission of the causal agent. The incubation period for kennel cough is anywhere from 2-14 days, so bear that in mind if your dog starts to exhibit the signs of kennel cough and has recently been in close contact with other dogs.

Below are the 6 most common signs of kennel cough in dogs. It is important to note, however, that these signs can be very similar to other, more serious illnesses — such as a tracheal collapse, Blastomycosis, Valley Fever, Heartworms, and even cardiac disease — so it’s always wise to seek the advice of your veterinarian when any of these symptoms are seen in your four-legged friend.

1. The cough

What is it:  Usually strong and persistent, the cough is one of the early signs of kennel cough, and is described by veterinarians as a “honking” sound, almost like a goose. A dog with kennel cough will cough every few minutes, all day long. You would be forgiven for thinking your dog has something stuck in their throat that they were trying to dislodge.

What causes it: Kennel cough is a respiratory infection. The bacterium attacks the lining of the dog’s respiratory tract and causes inflammation of the upper airway including the trachea (windpipe) and larynx (voice box). The trachea leads to two large tubes, or bronchi, one going to each lung. The trachea and the bronchi of an infected dog are irritated by the presence of the bacterial cells and become inflamed. This leads to irritation of the airway — redness, swelling, and discomfort or pain — and causes the unrelenting, dry, hacking cough that is commonly associated with kennel cough.

Is it dangerous: While uncomfortable for your dog, and sometimes distressing for the owner, kennel cough is very common and is not dangerous in the majority of cases. The condition rarely leads to any long-term health issues however your vet may prescribe a medication to ease the cough and antibiotics to treat any secondary infections. Antibiotics only work against kennel cough caused by bacteria but not viruses, and without a lab test, the causative agent of a particular case of kennel cough can’t be known. A secondary bacterial infection is one that develops after the animal’s body is in a weakened state due to the effects of the virus making the immune system less successful in attacking a new invader, and antibiotics can be very effective at treating these infections. Commonly used kennel cough antibiotics include baytril, doxycycline and clavamox, which are given orally.

A secondary infection can turn the dry, hacking cough into a more phlegmy cough which can be followed by gagging motions, sometimes producing mucus. This “wet” cough can lead to pneumonia which can be life-threatening in dogs.

What you should do: Keep your coughing dog away from all sources of smoke as this can exacerbate the condition, and also use a harness (rather than a collar) when walking your dog for a few weeks, to reduce coughing brought on by pressure on the irritated trachea. You can also try treating the cough with a variety of natural home remedies.

2. Runny nose

Dog with Runny NoseWhat is it:  As any dog lover knows, a wet nose is a good sign, but when wet becomes runny — or more accurately referred to as excessive nasal discharge — it is another early sign of kennel cough.

What causes it: Aside from being caused by kennel cough, a thin, watery discharge without colour or smell coming from both nostrils can also be an allergy to something. Just like people, dogs can be allergic to pollen, foods, drugs, mites, spores, and chemicals. They can even be allergic to human dander (our shed skin).

Is it dangerous: In the case of a dog with no other symptoms and some clear nasal discharge, a runny nose is not caused for immediate concern. If accompanied by the cough described above, it’s likely a sign of kennel cough. Nose discharge, however, can also be a symptom of a more serious problem like distemper and cancerous tumors, so it should always be taken seriously.

What you should do: As previously mentioned, you should consider taking your dog to the vet if you suspect kennel cough, and nasal discharge is a symptom. Either way, if your dog has had a runny nose for more than one week, seek advice from your veterinarian.

In many cases, the cough itself and a runny nose are the only signs of kennel cough that will be exhibited in your dog. However, the infection can sometimes be accompanied by three more symptoms:

3. Sneezing

Early Signs of Kennel Cough - SneezingDogs can sneeze for any number of reasons, especially when they are playing or excited by something. They could have an irritant in their nose like dust, household products, perfume, or pollen, or they may have something stuck in their nose, such as dirt from digging. In most cases, doggy sneezing is normal and harmless, however, it can also be a sign of kennel cough. If you notice your dog sneezing a little more than normal, keep an eye out for other signs of kennel cough, and take him to the vet if more symptoms present and you suspect kennel cough.

4. Lethargy

What Are the Signs of Kennel Cough

Lethargy is not usually a sign of kennel cough and most dogs remain active despite the presence of kennel cough. They might be more tired than usual simply because of all the coughing. Lethargy in dogs is more common when a secondary infection has occurred.

5. Loss of appetite

Again, while it may not happen in all cases, some dogs with kennel cough might be off their food for a few days. Encourage your dog to eat and drink plenty of freshwater, perhaps even adding some chicken broth to the water if he hasn’t seemed interested in drinking.

6. Low fever

With kennel cough, some dogs can run a fever but in most cases, it doesn’t happen. However it’s important to be aware that it is a possible sign of kennel cough.

What are the signs of kennel cough in puppies?

Kennel Cough in PuppiesWhile kennel cough in adult dogs is relatively harmless, in puppies younger than six months of age that have an immature immune system, it can be a very serious infection. However, puppies cough often. How do you know when the cough is a sign of kennel cough?

  • When a puppy has kennel cough, it is usually a loud and frequent cough where no mucus is brought up during the coughing but the puppy seems to gag. Sometimes a small amount of white foamy liquid spits out after gagging. While it might be tricky, try to minimize your puppy’s excitement as activity can irritate the airways.
  • Some pups will also exhibit an eye discharge that is full of mucus.
  • As with adult dogs, puppies with kennel cough may have a slight fever but in most cases, their temperature does not rise.
  • Puppies are usually hyperactive, so it may be hard to notice if she is not as active as usual, but reduced energy levels can also be a sign of kennel cough.
  • Most of the time, a puppy infected with kennel cough will continue to eat their food, but perhaps not as much as usual.

Kennel cough can sometimes progress into pneumonia which is quite serious in puppies and will require more aggressive treatment. In fact, while less than 5% of cases of kennel cough in dogs develop into pneumonia, puppies are disproportionately overrepresented.

Your vet will likely check for distemper and canine influenza, as the symptoms of these illnesses can look just like kennel cough in the early stages. Distemper and influenza are both serious and potentially life-threatening viruses, so it’s very important to take your puppy to the vet even if just to rule these out.

As with adult dogs, keep your infected puppy from being exposed to other dogs. The best practice for new puppy owners is to keep your puppy away from other dogs until they have received their full course of vaccinations.

How do dogs get kennel cough?

Dogs can be exposed to kennel cough in any situation where there is close contact with other dogs, such as kennels, dog parks, or training classes. Even in the most hygienic, well-ventilated, spacious kennels the possibility of a dog acquiring kennel cough exists; it is not a reflection on the quality of the kennel itself. Your dog may even have received his bordetella vaccination, but it’s still possible for him to get infected. Remember, a lot of bacteria and viruses can cause kennel cough, and there is no vaccine against all of the infectious agents. Depending on what specific combination of organisms are involved in that particular infection the level of protection may not be adequate for the dog to fend it off completely.

Is kennel cough dangerous?

While kennel cough is not considered a serious infection (and can often go away untreated within 2-3 weeks by letting the dog’s immune system cure the disease on its own), your dog will be highly contagious during this time. It’s an airborne illness which is part of the reason why it spreads so readily and easily. It can also be transmitted via objects, such as contaminated water bowls, food bowls, and dog toys.

How is kennel cough treated?

Getting the infection treated with antibiotics by a veterinarian is important to avoid spreading it to other dogs he comes into contact with and keeping any secondary infections at bay.

  • Keep your infected pet and other dogs in the household at home until the infection has passed, or the course of antibiotics has been completed. The bacteria and viruses that cause the disease remain in the body for some time after the symptoms have disappeared so while your dog might appear perfectly healthy, he could still be contagious. If your dog has just had a bout of kennel cough and is 100% symptom-free, he should stay away from areas where he can contaminate other dogs for at least one week.
  • Other dogs in the home have usually already been exposed by the time symptoms appear, so isolating the infected dog from any others in the house to avoid spread is futile.
  • Your vet might suggest the use of a humidifier or vaporizer, and will probably recommend keeping your infected dog in a smoke-free, relatively warm environment to make sure he is rested and to help prevent the development of pneumonia.
  • If you do take your dog out and you see another dog during a walk, change your route or cross the street to avoid meeting the dog. Off-leash areas and dog parks should absolutely be avoided, since other dogs may rush to greet the infected animal. Do not take your dog to be groomed while he is infectious.

Is it kennel cough or canine influenza?

First Signs of Kennel CoughAs mentioned at the beginning of the article, kennel cough can often be confused with canine influenza. It’s important to note that if your dog has kennel cough, he will likely be acting and eating as normal, and will not have a fever. It’s more likely to be something else if the signs of kennel cough are accompanied by lethargy and loss of appetite.

Kennel CoughCanine Influenza (CIV)
Cause Bordetella bronchiseptica is the most common bacterial cause of kennel coughInfluenza virus
ContagiousHighly – a vaccine is available and is usually a requirement for dogs staying in kennels, where the infection is known to spread easily.Highly – can be reduced with a canine influenza vaccine
TreatableBacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics but it  can also go away untreated in 2-3 weeksCan be treated but will also go away untreated in 2-3 weeks with rest and plenty of fluids
CoughYes – hacking, dry, “honking” soundYes – persistent but no “honking” sound. Causes breathlessness.
Nasal dischargeVery likelyYes
Energy NormalReduced

As you can see, kennel cough and canine influenza present very similar symptoms, and it can be difficult to determine the difference without the help of a medical professional.

In summary, there are 6 common signs of kennel cough in dogs that you should be aware of:

  1. A strong and persistent cough that sounds more like a “honking” sound than a cough.
  2. A runny nose, clear and non-odorous.
  3. Sneezing
  4. Possible lethargy
  5. Possible lack of hunger
  6. Possible fever

If your dog is exhibiting any of these symptoms, in particular the hacking cough, you should visit your vet as a caution, to rule out more serious illnesses and to see if medical treatment might be necessary. Early treatment can speed your dog’s recovery and prevent a secondary infection from prolonging your pet’s illness.It can also prevent your dog from getting worse and developing pneumonia.

To help ease your dog’s discomfort, and to reduce the chance of secondary infection, keep him in a smoke-free, warm environment, and hopefully, your furry friend will be back to his usual self within a matter of weeks!