Kennel Cough


Vaccinations for dogs and cats are a no-brainer. If fatal diseases can be prevented with an easy injection, where do we stand on kennel cough? Is it deadly? Why is it sometimes mandatory to vaccinate before kennelling or taking your dog to a daycare centre? As a veterinary nurse, I am frequently asked these questions. Numerous articles have been written about this subject, but my approach considers you, the pet owner who needs practical information—without complicated veterinary jargon—to make informed choices for your fur kids.   

What is kennel cough?

Kennel cough—also called infectious tracheobronchitis—describes a bacterial and viral infection that leads to a mild fever, lack of appetite and a dry, retching, unproductive cough. It affects dogs and, less commonly, cats. Where many animals congregate and come into direct contact with each other, kennel cough (if present) spreads like wildfire. The transfer is via minute droplets in the air (for example, from coughing, sneezing or barking), direct nose-to-nose contact or contaminated surfaces like food/water bowls.  


The upper respiratory tract (before the lungs) is like an upside-down tree; the trunk is the ‘trachea’ or breathing pipe and the two main branches are called the ‘bronchi’. This gives us the tracheobronch part of the name of the disease. The suffix –itis is simply medical speak and refers to disease or inflammation. 


Surprisingly, the main cause of kennel cough is not a virus—it’s a bacterium called Bordetella bronchiseptica, and it’s seldom fatal for healthy animals. I did say “no complicated jargon” but this titbit is worth knowing as it allows us to identify kennel cough as belonging to the same family of bacteria that causes whooping cough in humans. The secondary cause of kennel cough is the parainfluenza virus (flu). While generally not deadly, for very young pets or animals whose immune systems are compromised, kennel cough can develop into a more serious disease like pneumonia. 

It should be noted, however, that there are a few other viruses like canine distemper and adenovirus-2 (hepatitis) that display similar symptoms to kennel cough in your pets, but are far more serious. Therefore, if you do notice kennel cough-like symptoms in your pet, it is worth getting them checked out by a vet.

Is annual vaccination against kennel cough necessary?

As the name suggests, this disease is more likely to affect pets that are crowded together. In my experience, pet owners often decline the vaccination because they don’t believe their animals come into contact with other animals and are therefore not in danger. Although this is logical reasoning, your pets may be coming into contact with more animals than you realise—consider a cat that wanders around at night meeting all the neighbourhood felines, or the other dogs you encounter when on your daily ‘walkies’, not to mention if your pet attends training school or puppy socialisation classes.

While it is certainly the case that kennel cough is associated with higher stress levels (such as in kennels or shelters), reduced environmental temperatures and inadequate immunity, transmission can also occur when our healthy dogs are happily chatting to each other in the park. And, even if your dog or cat is vaccinated, you don’t know the health status of all the animals they come into contact with. 

Understanding how kennel cough physically affects your pet is also a consideration when deciding whether to vaccinate or not. Although it is not a fatal disease for otherwise healthy pets, the coughing and retching can be painful and can last from 1–3 weeks. Treatment for the disease can also be costly, and contact with other animals must be prevented for 2 weeks after symptoms have abated.

Although annual vaccinations can be pricey, adding the kennel cough vaccine to your pet’s annual vaccination visit may not be a bad plan, and will certainly bring you peace of mind. Whatever you decide, it is important to understand that unvaccinated, but otherwise robust pets can still be infected outside of the commonly acceptable hot spots. So, if do decide not to vaccinate, don’t panic; just be aware.

Types of vaccines: dead or alive

Though you may not know it, not all vaccines are created equal. For example, an ‘attenuated’ live virus or bacteria forms the basis of one type of vaccine. In this instance, the bacteria or virus has been deliberately weakened (under laboratory conditions) so as not to cause the actual disease. It is, however, still strong enough to elicit an immune response in your pet. By contrast, inactivated (dead) viruses or bacteria vaccines require boosters because they generally don’t provide immunity that is as efficient as a live vaccine. 

Generally speaking, there are three types of vaccines available that can be administered to your pet in different ways. However, these may not all be available in your country.

  • Intranasal: The intranasal kennel cough vaccine for dogs is usually a live combination of both brontiseptica and the parainfluenza virus (and some products protect against hepatitis too). It protects against infection after about 72 hours—a good choice if you have to kennel your pet at short notice. On contact, the vaccine creates antibodies directly in the upper respiratory tract. There is also an intranasal cat vaccine, but this does not contain the parainfluenza virus. 
  • Oral: The oral vaccine is also a form of live inoculation but excludes the parainfluenza virus because this is not stable when administered orally. 
  • Sub-cutaneous: Finally, the injectable form of the vaccine is made of the inactivated cells of bordetella. This ‘dead’ vaccine may provide a reasonable level of protection in about 2 weeks but a booster is still required at around 2–4 weeks to ensure adequate protection.  
What about other vaccines?

The topic of annual vaccinations requires much more discussion than can be offered in this brief article, but ideally, your dog or cat should be vaccinated with core vaccines from about 6–8 weeks old. A core vaccination protects animals from life-threatening diseases that have a global distribution. These diseases will be covered in another article. For now, it is enough to note that the canine distemper, flu and hepatitis viruses can display similar symptoms to kennel cough. 

For dogs, these diseases (including parvovirus) are covered in the core vaccinations and yearly boosters. For cats, the diseases that have similar symptoms to kennel cough are rhinotracheitis (you know about the trachea now, but ‘rhino’ refers to the nose) and calicivirus. These two viruses are also covered in the core vaccinations and boosters for cats. 

Top Tip: If your pet is currently on antibiotics, the kennel cough vaccine will not provide cover against kennel cough as the medication will interfere with the bacteria in the vaccine. If you are considering getting the vaccine for your pet, therefore, make sure you do it when they are healthy and not on any antibiotic medication!


© Liz Roodt 2023

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