Two or three times a year, we experience a mini-epidemic of kennel cough. People whose dogs come down with the disease often query why this should be so when they have had their dogs routinely vaccinated against kennel cough.

So we thought it was timely to clear up a few misconceptions about this disease.

“Kennel cough” is an extremely contagious infection which causes tracheobronchitis (inflammation of the lining of the airways). The common name is something of a misnomer, since your dog doesn’t necessarily have to have been in kennels to contract it. Any contact with an infected dog can lead to development of clinical signs, up to 7 days later. The organisms responsible for the disease are spread through the air, so some dogs will get the infection even without leaving their own backyards. Nevertheless, the incidence is greater in places like boarding kennels, where large numbers of dogs are at close quarters and potentially more stressed than usual.

The principal symptom of kennel cough is a harsh dry cough, most often likened to a gooses’ honk. The more the dog coughs, the more irritated the airway linings become, so the disease tends to be self-perpetuating.

Treatment of the problem consists largely of using drugs to suppress the cough. Nursing care is also important- your dog should be kept warm and dry, and strenuous exercise which could cause him to pant should be avoided. Needless to say, contact with other dogs should be avoided as much as possible, to minimise further spread of the disease through the canine population. If you have more than one dog in your household, separating them when one develops symptoms is a waste of time- because of the incubation period of the disease, by the time one dog is showing signs, the other one will already have been exposed and potentially incubating the disease.

It is not always the case that every dog in a household will contract the infection, however, because some dogs may have innately better immunity than others.

Kennel cough tends to occur in “bursts”: we will see scores of cases over a period of a few weeks when there is an outbreak, then we may not see a case for months.

Treatment cannot cure or eliminate the disease- it is simply aimed at controlling the symptoms while the dog herself recovers over time. Systemic signs such as fever, depression or lack of appetite usually only develop if secondary bacterial infections take hold. If your dog does appear to become systemically ill, you should consult one of our vets for an assessment as to whether antibiotics are indicated.

As for the reason that vaccinated dogs can still pick up the disease: the kennel cough vaccination provides protection against two organisms, Parainfluenza virus and Bordetella bronchiseptica. These two organisms are included in the vaccine not only because they are highly contagious, but they also result in very severe forms of the disease. Like a human flu vaccine, though, the kennel cough vaccination does not provide protection against every single respiratory infection that is out in the environment, and your dog does remain susceptible to these less serious organisms.

It is nevertheless important to keep up the annual vaccinations, because it does protect your dog from the most serious of the respiratory infections, and immunity does not last for longer than 12 months.