Visiting Vet: Kennel cough

Even Koffka the Kuvasz can get a cold.

The Kuvasz. — Getty Images/imageBROKER RF

Last month I caught a cold. A persistent little bug. After two weeks I thought I was getting better. Then, suddenly, my cough returned with a vengeance, right when I was supposed to head to West Springfield to watch my daughter compete in the New England Equitation Championship. Well, I wasn’t going to let a cold keep me from this important event, was I? So off I went. Friday I spent hours huddled in the unheated arena at the Big E watching incredibly talented girls (and a few boys) ride elegant horses through complicated patterns over what looked to this Jewish mother like death-defying jumps. On Saturday, my cough became dramatically worse. I spiked a fever. Couldn’t get out of bed. I figured I had a bad upper respiratory virus … kind of like when dogs get “kennel cough.”

I’ve been seeing quite a surge in cases of kennel cough this fall. The term is a catchall phrase for many viral and/or bacterial infections of the upper respiratory tract. Technically kennel cough is “canine tracheobronchitis.” The suffix “-itis” means inflammation, so “tracheobronchitis” simply means inflammation of the windpipe and bronchi. Canine viruses that can cause tracheobronchitis include distemper, parainfluenza, adenovirus type 2, influenza, herpes virus, respiratory coronavirus, pantropic coronavirus, reovirus, and pneumovirus. Bacteria that can cause it include certain species of bordetella, mycoplasma, and streptococcus. Despite this long list of possible etiologies, the organisms most often implicated are bordetella, mycoplasma, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, or a combination of these, as it is not uncommon for more than one organism to be involved.

How does Koffka, the Kuvasz, acquire kennel cough? If you’ve never seen a Kuvasz, look them up. Huge, fluffy white guard dogs of Hungarian origin. Cool breed. But I digress. Koffka is coughing. Where did he catch that cold? One way kennel cough spreads is via contact with droplets of respiratory secretions spewed into the air by infected dogs. If Koffka’s puppy playmate, Buddy, is sneezing or coughing, he can potentially infect his friend. Even dogs who seem perfectly healthy may sometimes carry these organisms and spread it to their playmates. But one of the main reasons kennel cough got its name is that these infections also spread via contaminated fomites. “Fomite” is a great word meaning a nonliving object or material capable of carrying infectious organisms and serving in their transmission. Cages. Floors. Rocks. Sticks. Any environment where multiple dogs spend time may contain “contaminated fomites.” Boarding kennels. Grooming facilities. Dog parks. There doesn’t have to be an actual live dog present at the exact same time as Koffka. Infected dogs leave organisms behind on fomites. Another reason for the name “kennel cough” is that overcrowding, poor ventilation, and stress increase the risk of infection, all conditions that may occur in kennel-type situations.

Clinical signs develop two to 10 days after exposure — usually just a cough, maybe sneezing. The throaty, hacking cough comes in bouts that sometimes end with a gag, which owners may mistake for vomiting. Diagnosis is typically made based on clinical signs and history. In very young, very old, or immunosuppressed dogs, or those with other health issues, more serious illness can occur, including fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, even pneumonia, but it is generally a mild, self-limiting disease.

What about treatment? If Koffka’s case is caused by a virus, antibiotics are ineffective. Many people are confused by this. The key point to understand is that antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral. Overusing antibiotics when not indicated just contributes to the global problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That said, many cases of kennel cough are caused by mycoplasma or bordetella — these bacteria can be treated with antibiotics. Most veterinarians will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to prescribe antibiotics or not. Cough suppressants can help make Koffka more comfortable, so you can all get some sleep. Most dogs recover within 10 days, many even without treatment, just like we recover from a cold without treatment. In rare cases where kennel cough progresses to more serious illness, additional intensive therapy may be needed, even hospitalization.

The best way to protect Koffka is by vaccination, but that’s not as straightforward as it sounds. There simply are not vaccines available for every organism that can cause canine tracheobronchitis. Provided you see your veterinarian faithfully for recommended preventive health care, then Koffka’s routine “core” vaccinations protect him pretty well against canine parainfluenza virus, distemper virus, and adenovirus. Bordetella vaccination, however, is not considered a “core” vaccine. In other words, not every dog should get this “kennel cough” vaccine. It depends on individual lifestyle and risk. The lone farm dog who never leaves the property probably doesn’t need it. The pampered pup who visits the groomer monthly or the dog who goes to a kennel regularly should absolutely get the extra protection. Bordetella vaccine is available in oral, intranasal, and subcutaneous forms. It needs to be repeated yearly, or even every six months for extremely high-risk individuals.

Unfortunately, even vaccinated dogs can contract kennel cough. The vaccines are not 100 percent effective. Or Koffka may be infected with one of those bugs for which there is no vaccine, or with multiple organisms. It’s kind of like people getting the flu shot. It doesn’t completely eliminate the risk of us coming down with the flu. If Koffka does contract kennel cough, he should be kept away from other animals, as he may remain contagious for as long as three weeks, even if his symptoms resolve sooner. I’ve upset a number of people’s Thanksgiving plans this year with this bit of information. So sorry.

I left the horse show early, dragged myself home, and headed to the doctor. Turns out I had a nasty Mycoplasma infection (the type that infects people, not dogs). A few days in the hospital with intravenous antibiotics, cough suppressants, oxygen, and nebulizer treatments helped me get back on my feet, though I still have laryngitis a month later … as well as a renewed empathy for all those poor coughing dogs.