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Kennel Cough is a much bigger deal than the name leads you to believe.

If you have been in the dog business long enough, you will inevitably come across a few cases of kennel cough. With enough luck, you might not see an outbreak for a long time, but when it hits it can spread fast – just like a cold or flu at an elementary school. It can be challenging to contain the disease, but with the right biosecurity tactics, the spread can be minimized. As the veterinarian for Global K9 Protection Group, I have to admit that the phrase “kennel cough” really minimizes the complexity of the actual disease process. I guess that is the reason why many veterinarians and researchers have started using the phrase “canine infectious respiratory disease complex” as the preferred name of any respiratory infection in dogs that are associated with kennels, boarding facilities, and dog daycare facilities. This nomenclature provides a much better glimpse at what is behind the name.

Surprisingly, new research has shown that maybe Bordetella might not be the primary culprit of the respiratory disease complex like we previously thought.

Because of its prevalence, researchers have spent a lot of time and energy diving deeper into this topic to really figure out what is at the root of this disease. When your dog receives a “kennel cough” vaccine, the immunization usually covers Bordetella bacteria, adenovirus, and parainfluenza. Surprisingly, new research has shown that maybe Bordetella might not be the primary culprit of the respiratory disease complex like we previously thought. Listed below is a summary of the pathogens that veterinarians currently include in the “kennel cough” family:

  • Bacteria: Bordetella bronchiseptica, Mycoplasma spp., and Streptococcus zooepidemicus
  • Viruses: respiratory coronavirus, distemper, parainfluenza, adenovirus, canine herpesvirus, and canine influenza virus.

As you can see, it really is much more complicated than most people realize. Furthermore, there is emerging evidence that there are additional viruses that we might start adding to the list very soon. So the challenge for veterinary staff is how to approach a case of respiratory disease, whether it is just one dog or an entire kennel facility.

As bacteria become more and more resistant to antibiotics, veterinarians are faced with a tough choice of whether or not to use antibiotics because a respiratory infection could have a viral etiology and antibiotics would not help. Giving antibiotics to a patient with a viral infection is part of the reason that bacteria are becoming resistant, which could create problems in the future for that dog if they really need an antibiotic. This is a very difficult and subjective decision for a veterinarian to make unless there is a verified laboratory diagnosis using blood samples and respiratory secretions, which is often expensive and has a multi-day turnaround time to get results. What makes a treatment decision even more difficult is that the color and consistency of respiratory mucus is not always the best predictor for what type of infection it is – a viral infection alone can cause thick green mucus. Despite this, dogs in a kennel environment are often co-infected with 2 or more pathogens, so in cases where the dog is very symptomatic, I think it reasonable to prescribe antibiotics. Additional medications such as anti-inflammatories, cough suppressants, and/or bronchodilators (opens the airways) could sometimes be beneficial to help the dog feel better and possibly recover faster.

Despite the challenge of diagnosing and treating the dog, taking care of the facility is an entirely different beast. If the outbreak occurs in a kennel, consider all the dogs exposed until proven otherwise. The incubation period before symptoms appear could be anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Keep in mind that some of the pathogens in the respiratory disease complex can be shed in respiratory secretions for several weeks after the initial signs of sickness so impeccable biosecurity is imperative at all times. A few examples of high-quality biosecurity include the following:

  • Proper disinfectant selection and usage.
  • Quarantine the sick dogs.
  • Keep all new dogs arriving at your kennel separate from the rest of the pack for a few days to watch for a sickness that might have been incubating.
  • Make sure all the dogs are up-to-date on vaccinations.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff members interacting with sick dogs to minimize spread.
  • Limit the number of staff members that care for the sick animals.
  • Different bowls and bowl washing areas.
  • Appropriately designed ventilation to prevent the sharing of contaminated air +/- exhaust fans to remove the contaminated air.

Even with all of these measures in place, it is still possible for a respiratory disease to show up from time to time because, unfortunately, every single pathogen on the list above is capable of being spread by the dog before it shows any signs of illness. Even the most immaculate facilities will see a case or two on occasion. It is almost inevitable because, at the end of the day, dogs are living creatures just like you and me, and we all get sick every now and then. So when that happens, get some rest, take some medicine, and then get back out there and accomplish your mission.

About Dr. Dan

Dr. Dan Caldwell is the owner and lead veterinarian at MAC Animal Clinic in Auburn, Alabama. He has received numerous awards, including accolades for surgery, internal medicine, and public health. After graduating third in his class, he spent time in emergency medicine before transitioning to a position as the lead veterinarian at a clinic near Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Caldwell and his family eventually decided they wanted to raise their family in Auburn, so they charted their course to opening MAC Animal Clinic in 2017.

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