Kennel Cough Explained

Prevention, Symptoms and Treatment

Kennel cough often sounds worse than it actually is. It doesn't always need treatment as it will go away on its own, but it's always best to understand the causes and symptoms, and what treatments you could give your dog to help ease his symptoms.

What Is Kennel Cough?

The medical name for kennel cough (KC) is Infectious Tracheobronchitis, or ITB for short, and it's also known as 'canine cough'.

It's a respiratory infection of the trachea (throat), larynx (voice box) and bronchi ('root-like' passageways through which air passes into and out of the lungs).

The infection causes irritation and inflammation of the larynx and trachea, and it's this that makes your dog cough so much.

Max my cocker spaniel, watching me work, chilling out on red cushions.Hello Mum!

And when I say cough, I mean COUGH! This is the mother of all coughs which doesn't seem to let up!

It's dry and hacking and you'd be forgiven for thinking your dog was choking. But don't worry, it often sounds much worse than it is.

Although there isn't really a cure for kennel cough it's generally nothing to worry about as it tends to sort itself, however, there may be occasional complications which can affect the lungs and sometimes result in pneumonia.

What Are The Symptoms Of Canine Cough?

Kennel cough symptoms typically include a constant, dry, hacking cough which can sound like a goose honking, (some owners have likened it to whooping cough) and is often followed by gagging or retching

It's quite a persistent cough and may disrupt your household for a while because it will continue during the night.

Max had kennel cough a few years back and I can still remember those sleepless nights, so be prepared! 

If your Cocker is 'lucky' he'll remain healthy, be (almost) his normal self, and will only have to suffer the cough, which is bad enough. 

However, he may also have milder symptoms such as:

  • a runny nose,
  • watery eyes,
  • sneezing or snorting,
  • mucus,
  • coughing up a white foam,

However, if your Cocker loses his appetite, becomes lethargic, develops a fever or appears less alert, I recommend you take him to see his vet as soon as possible because there may be additional problems or complications.

What Causes Canine Cough?

There are many causes of this infectious bronchitis, but it's usually picked up by inhaling a virus, such as the para-influenza virus, adenovirus and canine distemper virus or a bacterial infection, the most common being Bordetella bronchiseptica. 

Other causes are:

  • stress,
  • warm air and a lack of (or poor) ventilation, 
  • exposure to high levels of dust,
  • cigarette or wood smoke,
  • cold temperatures.

How Long Does Kennel Cough Last?

Canine kennel cough may develop within 2 and 10 days after exposure and normally lasts for a couple of weeks, if it's uncomplicated, but can hang around for longer (between 2 to 4 weeks) if more than one virus and/or bacteria are the cause or if complications occur.

Recovery may take a little longer if your Cocker Spaniel;

  • is 'run down', 
  • has a weakened immune system, 
  • has a medical condition, 
  • is a young puppy or is in his senior years.

Pregnant bitches may also take longer to recover, for obvious reasons.

 Is Kennel Cough Contagious?

Yes, it's highly infectious and it's usually 'picked up' anywhere where other dogs gather, for example, boarding kennels, the local dog park...and your vet's surgery isn't immune either!

The Bordetella bacteria can remain in your dog's system for up to 3 months, which means that he will still be infectious during that time.

If your Cocker Spaniel is unlucky enough to get kennel cough, it's best to keep him away from other dogs (so no visits to the doggie park).

If you have more than one pet it may be too late to stop them from getting it too, in fact you may be seeing some of the symptoms already!

If other pets in your household aren't already showing any visible signs of canine cough, I recommend you keep them apart; feed them separately, (use different food and water bowls) and give them separate sleeping areas and bedding.

Unfortunately, you'll also need to walk them separately too.

What About Kennel Cough in Puppies?

If you suspect your puppy has kennel cough, keep a very close eye on him.

Watch his temperature and make sure he eats. If he becomes feverish or lethargic and refuses to eat, take him to see his vet immediately. 

If he just has the hacking cough but otherwise seems okay, it's not necessary, but it won't hurt for him to see his vet anyway. 

Puppies can often take longer to recover from canine cough because their little bodies are still developing and their immune systems aren't yet up to speed.

Can People Catch It?  

Although there is minimal risk, there is some speculation that because the bacteria Bordetella Bronchiseptica is very similar to the same bacteria that causes whooping cough, it's possible it could become infectious to people.

However, my research showed that kennel cough-like symptoms appeared only in people whose health wasn't good or where their immune system wasn't up to par.

In general though, the answer to the above question is probably no, you've nothing to worry about.

Kennel Cough Treatment

Although there is no 'treatment' as in cure for kennel cough, you can treat the symptoms and make your pet feel more comfortable.

Seeing your faithful friend suffering from the symptoms of this condition is heart-breaking, but don't worry, you don't need to feel helpless because there are several things you can do to help him recover quickly and comfortably.

Apart from the obvious (keeping him warm, dry and comfortable and giving him lots of TLC) you can help to minimize your pet's symptoms and make him feel better by trying one or more of the following: 

Prescription Anti-Inflammatories

If your Cocker is really suffering with his breathing, your vet may suggest using an anti-inflammatory to reduce inflammation to help soothe his airways.

Doggy Cough Mixture

You have options here: you can ask your vet for something for his cough, buy one over the counter, or you could try a homemade remedy such as honey and lemon mixed with a little water.

It's best not to give your pet human cough medicines unless it's a homeopathic remedy and your vet has given it the 'all clear'.


Antibiotics are often prescribed for infections caused by the Bordetella bacteria. Some vets will give it out automatically; others prefer to keep antibiotics for more serious illness.

Personally I prefer (wherever possible) to use a combination of TLC and home remedies, but the good news is you may not need to give your dog any medication at all because kennel cough usually rights itself in a few days. 

Home Remedies For Kennel Cough

If your dog's symptoms are mild, there are a couple of home remedies that can be used as treatment for canine cough to help give him much-needed relief.

Remove His Collar

Your dog's collar may be irritating his throat and causing him to cough the easy thing to do is to remove it! 

If your dog usually pulls on the lead, (and many Cockers do!) a collar will be out of the question. You'll still be able to walk him without his collar if you use a harness, but don't forget to attach his name tag to it, just in case! 

A Clean Stress-Free Environment

Keep his environment calm, clean and stress-free, for example: 

  • Try not to get him over-excited as it can make his coughing worse; 

  • If he's due for a visit to the groomers (and it usually stresses him) put it off until he's better;  

  • Cigarette or pipe smoke can often make matters worse so if you smoke, perhaps it would be a good idea if your pet was kept in a smoke free zone until he's fully recovered;

  • Now might be a good time to give his bedding, blankets, toys, food and water bowls a spring clean to keep bacteria at bay.

All of the above will go a long way to helping your little boy to stay relaxed and calm and help him to feel a lot better.

Extra Vitamins and Hydration

Additional vitamin C and E may help provide support for his immune system. Check the dosage with your vet and make sure your dog drinks plenty of water.

Soften His Food

Kibble, no matter how small, can be painful to an inflamed throat as it's swallowed. You could consider changing him onto to a wet food until he's better, but please be aware that any sudden change in diet may cause an upset stomach and/or diarrhoea. 

A brilliant suggestion from my vet was to soften Max's kibble with hot water 5 or 10 minutes before I fed him. This worked a treat as it took all those little rough edges off his kibble (so as not to irritate his throat) and seemed to go down a lot better. 

Homeopathic Remedies

If you prefer your kennel cough home remedy to be homeopathic, then you may find the following useful.

It's said that the 'tea' from a natural liquorice root soaked in boiling water can help soothe a sore throat. If he won't drink it from a bowl, try adding it to his meal.

Honey and lemon can also help to soothe a sore throat. How many times have we taken it ourselves, or given it to our children, when we've had a cold?

Beg, borrow or steal a humidifier and keep it in one room to help your dog breathe better. You might like to add a drop or two of an essential oil, such as eucalyptus or tea tree. 

A few drops of essential oils such as lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, dropped into a humidifier, or a burner (obviously well out of reach) will give off a gentle vapor. These oils are antiviral and antibacterial and will help soothe your pet's breathing - they smell nice too!

If you can't get your hands on a humidifier, the next best thing would be to allow him into the bathroom while the family showers as the steam will help to loosen and unclog his airways.

This last one is probably my favourite home remedy for kennel cough!

Kennel Cough Vaccine

The vaccine is a preventative measure, not a treatment.

It can be injected, sprayed directly into the nose, or given orally. It's not altogether fool proof but will give your pet a good level of protection against many viruses and bacterium.

My vet recommends a kennel cough vaccine once each year, (using a nasal spray) but if we were planning to put Max into kennels 2, 3 or even 4 weeks before his next vaccine was due, we'd bring his renewal date forward.

There are other vets who recommend giving the vaccine every 6 months and others who believe in giving the vaccine 5 or 6 days before your pet is due to go into kennels, so long as this doesn't exceed 2 or 3 visits each year.

Personally, I'm happy with the advice from my vet, but I recommend you take advice from your Cocker's vet.

Possible Side Effects of Kennel Cough Vaccines

It's helpful to understand that there may be some side effects to the KC vaccine.

Mild reactions, (such as a small lump or swelling where the needle entered the skin, loss of appetite, and lethargy) are pretty harmless but vomiting and diarrhoea for example, are two that I would be concerned about.

It's always better to know what you're dealing with so ask your vet what side effects you should look out for and be concerned about, if any. 

Kennel Cough: Summary

In many respects, KC is a bit like the common cold; little Jimmy goes to school with a runny nose and a tickly cough and within hours he's passed it on to most of his classmates! 

And, just like the common cold it can clear itself within a few days without any complications. 

Although there isn't a sure-fire cure for it you can help to avoid it in the first place with a yearly vaccine.

Liver and white cocker spaniel lying down next to a white pillar.I'm watching you!

However, if your Cocker Spaniel is unlucky enough to get kennel cough, there are a few things you can do to make his life a little easier:

  • keep him warm and calm;

  • feed him well and make sure he drinks plenty of water; 

  • give him a little honey and lemon to help soothe his cough;

  • soften his kibble with hot water to help make it easier to eat;

  • remove his collar and use a harness so that 'walkies' are still possible without causing a massive coughing fit.

  • turn on the shower and close the bathroom door, sit with him and just let him breathe in the steam. 

Give him lots of TLC and Mother Nature will do the rest! 

If you don't see an improvement in your dog within a couple of weeks, or you see a decline in his health, it's probably best to take him to see his vet just to be on the safe side.

Photo Credits: Kennel Cough
1. Copyright of About Cocker Spaniels
2. Dominic Morel -