All About Kennel Cough

Kennel cough is perhaps the closest canine equivalent to the common cold. It’s rarely life-threatening, but it sure can be uncomfortable for your dog.

Fortunately, an annual vaccination can protect your dog from kennel cough. If you plan to board your dog, enter him into competition, or let him spend lots of time around other dogs, get him vaccinated. At many shows and kennels, in fact, it’s required.


Kennel cough (also called canine cough) is a highly contagious virus or bacterial infection that’s spread through the air from another infected animal. Dogs in close proximity are extremely likely to infect each other if they’re not treated beforehand.

Once inhaled, the microscopic bacteria attach to the trachea or upper respiratory passageway, causing irritation of the tracheal lining and nerve endings–then your dog develops a hacking cough. Mild cases of kennel cough last between one and three weeks and usually resolve on their own without treatment. But even after the telltale cough goes away, the dog can still be contagious for several days or even weeks.


Aside from the hacking cough, your dog will appear generally healthy, with a good appetite. He’ll simply suffer through it–but obviously if he could voice a preference, he’d choose to not be ill in the first place.

When it’s time to see a vet

There’s a slight chance that a more severe, life-threatening case of kennel cough can develop, so pay close attention to your dog as he fights off the infection. If you notice symptoms such as a watery nasal discharge, sluggishness, loss of appetite, and fever, it’s time to see your vet.

What’s next

The vet can make a diagnosis after doing a routine physical exam and getting a recent history of your dog’s contact with other dogs. If it’s a serious case, she may order additional blood work and bacteria cultures to see what infectious agents are at work.

Mild cases are likely to go untreated, much as the common cold is allowed to run its course in humans. Occasionally, vets may prescribe cough suppressants.

In more severe cases, your vet may prescribe antibiotics to prevent the infection from turning into pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. As with all antibiotics, be sure to complete the course of treatment, regardless of whether your dog seems fully recovered.

How to prevent kennel cough

There’s really only one way to totally prevent kennel cough: don’t let your dog around other dogs. But that’s often unrealistic, not to mention boring for your dog.

If your dog spends time around other canines–at a kennel, at daycare, or even at the dog park–ask your vet about vaccination. It’s a quick procedure, either a squirt of vaccine through the nasal passage or a shot. Vaccinations take days or weeks to take full effect, so be sure to plan ahead. As with the human flu vaccine, your dog needs to be vaccinated annually.

If your dog isn’t around many other dogs in close quarters, he may not need to be vaccinated.