Our Experiences with Kennel Cough – More Knowledge, Less Scary

I had never had a dog with kennel cough before, until Sienna.  Poor sweet Sienna developed kennel cough for the first time only a few days after we got her (I think it was only 2 or 3 days!).  We have no idea where she got it.  We hadn’t taken her anywhere yet and had barely even walked her (only around the block a number of times!) because of her upcoming FHO surgery and PTSD.

Dog posing while wearing a mask

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In retrospect, she probably got it at one of her many vet appointments.  She had been to the vet a few days before she joined our home to do a check-up for her upcoming surgery.  Either that or maybe Willow brought it home to her.

During the first few days with us, Sienna hung out in the bedroom.  This is pretty normal for a new dog, especially one with PTSD; she needed time to decompress.  We started hearing this weird hacking and coughing and had no idea what was going on.  It got progressively worse, and she occasionally coughed up some clear phlegm.  When she coughed up some red phlegm we panicked hard and rushed to the emergency vet, thinking the worst.  She was new to us, we didn’t know her history and it’s rarely a good sign when someone has blood in their mucus.  We were extremely worried.

It was late at night, and because we were still fairly early in the COVID pandemic, the emergency vet had a weird system where I was to bring Sienna into the foyer, tie her up using their leash, and leave her there for a nurse to get her.  My poor girl!  It broke my heart to watch her there, all alone, tied up in a strange entryway.  Thank dog the nurse came and got her pretty quickly.  I got a call from the vet about 15 mins later to go through her history (or lack thereof) and to tell me not to panic, that it was “just” kennel cough.  Kennel cough is not deadly in most cases, and is usually similar to a cold or flu in humans.  The vet prescribed her some antibiotics and cough syrup and sent us on our way.  It was probably the cheapest emergency vet visit we’d ever had! 

Sienna resting comfortably during her 1st bout of kennel cough

Sienna recovered pretty quick, but managed to develop kennel cough again less than 6 months later!  By this point, she was fully vaccinated for kennel cough.  I brought her to our regular vet this time.  He told me that she didn’t really need to come in for kennel cough and to go buy some cough syrup and she should recover soon.  He was right!

It was hard to listen to her cough for a few days, and she was definitely very tired (who isn’t when they’re sick?), but each time she was back to herself within days. 

I am still shocked that she got kennel cough twice in such a short time period.  Aside from vet visits, she was never exposed to many dogs during her first 6 months with us.  We didn’t take her to the dog park, her walks were short and around our neighbourhood (after all, she was still recovering from surgery) and the pet stores and training classes were all closed for in-person visits due to the pandemic.  I have to wonder if Sienna’s immune system was still weakened due to the trauma of her previous life in Mexico.  We did not separate Sienna and Willow either time Sienna had kennel cough (we should have, given how contagious it is!) and neither time did Willow have so much as a slight cough.  Willow remained perfectly healthy on each occasion. 

What is kennel cough?

Known as canine infectious respiratory disease, or formally canine infectious tracheobronchitis, kennel cough is an upper respiratory infection.  It has multiple possible causes including the bacterium, flu and coronavirus.  My vet advised they had seen a spike in kennel cough since covid-19 started and suspected that the tie to coronavirus was why. 

It’s called kennel cough because it is spread through airborne droplets and is highly contagious.  It can spread rapidly through a kennel, boarding service, training class, vets office or anywhere dogs congregate.

Symptoms usually develop within 2-3 days of exposure but can take up to 10 days to develop. 

What are the symptoms of kennel cough?

According to the American Kennel Club, symptoms can include:

  • A strong cough, often with a honking noise
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low fever
Willow with a runny nose

What do I do if I suspect my dog has kennel cough?

According to VCA Canada, there is no treatment for the virus, but antibiotics are often issued for the bacterium.  They also note that cough suppressants and anti-inflammatories are often helpful in providing symptom relief.  In most cases, the infection is resolved within 1 to 3 weeks, although mild symptoms may linger a little longer. 

I recommend contacting your vet to confirm the treatment recommended for your specific dog.  Your dog may need antibiotics, as Sienna did the first time, but you definitely want to make sure you get the correct cough syrup and dosage if that is what your vet recommends.  Make sure you check the ingredients very carefully to ensure the cough syrup is free from xylitol (aka birch syrup), which is toxic to dogs and extremely dangerous. 

Tips for dealing with a dog with kennel cough

  • Make sure your dog gets lots of rest!  This is one of the most important steps to healing.  Make sure your dog has a nice, relaxing and comfortable space where they can sleep, decompress and let their body fight the virus. 
  • If your vet ok’s it, give your dog cough syrup (our vet recommended Robitussin for us.  Check with your vet for the correct kind and dosage for your dog).  Not only will it help keep them more comfortable by soothing their cough and promote healing by allowing them to rest easier, but it will also give you peace of mind by not hearing them cough as much.
  • Give your dog honey.  Only give a small amount (2 tsp for a medium dog, 1 tbsp for a large dog).  Honey can help soothe their throat and also contains antioxidants. 
  • Keep your dog hydrated.  It’s really important that your dog is drinking enough to help flush out the toxins and promote healing.  If your dog does not want to drink, consider enticing your dog with ice cubes or adding a dog-friendly liquid like chicken broth to their water to add flavour. 
  • Make sure your dog has a clean, well-ventilated rest area
  • Use a humidifier and/or have a steam bath.  A humidifier will help to ease your dog’s dry cough.  Running a warm shower with your dog (or having them come into the bathroom while you’re in the shower!) will help to loosen the mucus in their throat and chest and also help to relieve their cough.  Do not leave your dog unattended in the bathroom, and make sure you have drinking water available for your dog in case the bathroom becomes too hot!
  • Use a harness instead of a collar so that it doesn’t push on your dog’s throat
  • If your dog’s appetite has decreased, consider offering soft or canned food which will be easier to swallow

How do I prevent kennel cough?

Kennel cough can be prevented with the Bordetella vaccine, however, like most vaccines including the Covid-19 and flu vaccines, it is not 100% preventative and is very dependent on the strand.  Speak to your vet for more information on the Bordetella vaccine. 

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