Kennel cough is, in fact, not one but a group of highly contagious respiratory diseases of dogs that spread rapidly through a kennel or other area where many dogs are kept in close quarters. A harsh, dry cough is the characteristic sign of infection. The cough may persist for many weeks and become a chronic problem as the virus is replaced by secondary bacterial invaders.
A number of viruses, and the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, have been implicated in the kennel cough complex.
Treatment: Only minor coughs of brief duration should be treated at home. Coughs accompanied by labored breathing, a discharge from the eyes or nose, or the production of bloody sputum should be seen and treated by a veterinarian.
It is important to identify and correct any contributing factors. Eliminate any irritating atmospheric pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, aerosol insecticides, strong cleaners, house dust, and perfumes, from the home environment.
Breaking the cough cycle is an important part of treating irritant coughs. A variety of children’s cough medicines are available over the counter. Children’s Robitussin is an effective cough medicine that contains an expectorant called guaifenesin. It does not suppress the cough reflex, but does liquefy mucus secretions so that they can be brought up more easily. Robitussin is safe to use for all coughs.
Robitussin-DM and Benylin Expectorant, also available over the counter, contain the cough suppressant dextromethorphan. (The correct dosage for all these cough preparations is given in the table Over-the-Counter Drugs for Home Veterinary Use) When stronger cough suppressants are needed, preparations containing the narcotics hydrocodone bitartrate (Hycodan) and butorphanol tartrate (Torbutrol, Torbugesic) are available by prescription from your veterinarian.
Cough suppressants should be used selectively and only for short periods. Although they decrease the frequency and severity of the cough, they do not treat the condition causing it. Overuse may delay diagnosis and treatment. Cough suppressants (but not expectorants) should be avoided in dogs with bacterial infections and when phlegm is being brought up or swallowed. In these cases, productive coughs are clearing unwanted material from the airway.
Dogs with a dry cough can be helped by keeping them in the bathroom while you shower and not using the fan. The added moisture may loosen secretions. Using a humidifier can also be helpful.
Prevention: Immunizing your dog with parainfluenza, bordetella, and CAV-2 vaccines—incorporated into the routine immunizations—will decrease the prevalence and severity of kennel cough, although it will not entirely prevent it.