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Can Dogs Die From Kennel Cough?

Kennel Cough in Dogs

If your dog has kennel cough, you may turn into a worry wart and wonder "can dogs die from kennel cough?" The answer to this question is that it depends. Just as humans sometimes die from complications from the common cold, it can happen that a dog may succumb to a self-limiting disease like kennel cough, but the good news is that this event is quite rare. Yet, if your dog meets certain criteria that make him more vulnerable, with the help of your vet you can take some preventive steps to prevent complications in your best friend.

dog coughing after the bordetella vaccine

The Truth About Kennel Cough 

You may have come to believe that kennel cough is this terribly awful disease that you want to avoid like the plague. After all, that's why most kennels, grooming parlors, doggy day cares and training centers request proof of bordetella vaccine in dogs before visiting their premises, right?

Well, turns out that these establishments request proof of bordetella not because the disease is particularly dangerous, but because of liability issues.

These establishments may request proof of bordetella vaccine because of their insurance policy or because they need to adhere to some specific regional or state law. It's therefore mostly a liability issue more than a matter of health.

If you want to board your dog but do not want to get your dog vaccinated for kennel cough, some facilities will allow you to provide a waiver of liability, with you stating that, should your dog become ill, you will waive liability and will not take a legal recourse against them.

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"Many boarding facilities, kennels, doggy daycares, groomers, and even some veterinarians require dogs be vaccinated for kennel cough. Please understand the only reason these institutions demand your pet be vaccinated is to remove liability from themselves. They're just bouncing liability away from their businesses by requiring your pet be vaccinated for kennel cough."~Dr. Karen Becker

Can Dogs Die from Kennel Cough?

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Of course, they certainly can, but the chances of this happening are very unlikely. Despite sounding horrible when a dog coughs (many people compare it to a goose honking), it is just a nuisance more than anything else.

Typically, the incubation time from exposure to the onset of symptoms may range anywhere between 2 and 14 days. Affected dogs develop the coughing, nasal discharge, and sometimes sneezing and reverse sneezing. Most dogs are still bright and alert and they are still interested in food and water.

Kennel cough generally causes symptoms for 1 to 2 weeks, but in some dogs symptoms may be present for up to 3 to 4 weeks. Typically, the coughing is the worse the first week and then it should progressively get better. It appears to often be worse at night.

Kennel cough in dogs is therefore in most cases a self-limiting condition, and affected dogs should act normally other than having an annoying cough. According to veterinarian Dr. Jean Dodds, kennel cough only really becomes dangerous when it develops into secondary pneumonia, but this is a rare happening occurring only in certain predisposed dogs.

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"The good thing is kennel cough does not cause death, it is just more of a nuisance than anything."~Dr. Christie, veterinarian.

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Exceptions to the Rule

Kennel cough resolves uneventfully in dogs with a healthy immune system, however, complications may sometimes arise in certain predisposed dogs. Which dogs are mostly at risk? Generally, dogs with a weakened or compromised immune system.

Very young dogs (generally under the age of 4 months) or dogs who are heavily parasitized and malnourished, may be more predisposed to develop complications from a disease such as kennel cough.

Also small dogs with collapsing trachea, dogs suffering from heart problems, dogs debilitated from chronic disease or simply old age, may need to be on antibiotics to prevent kennel cough from progressing to coughing that lingers on for long or pneumonia, explains veterinarian Dr. Robert Hines. 

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" In more than 20 years in clinical practice, I have not seen one single dog succumb to kennel cough... The risk of a dog dying of kennel cough is not any different than of a person dying of a common cold or flu."~Dr. Peter Dobias

Signs to Watch For

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It's important to distinguish a normal case of kennel cough from a case that is progressing and at risk for turning into a case of bronchitis that leads to pneumonia. One of the best ways to distinguish the two is by looking at the symptoms exhibited by the dog.

Generally speaking, in uncomplicated kennel cough cases, affected dogs have no fever, their nasal discharge is clear, they do not appear listless and they do not have a loss of appetite. As previously mentioned, these dogs are pretty much acting normally and the do not appear sick other than for the coughing.

Dogs with pneumonia instead appears to be sick. There may be coughing that is very severe and green nasal discharge. The affected dogs has a poor appetite, is running a fever and is acting listless. Such a dog should be evaluated for pneumonia, suggests veterinarian Dr. Wendy C. Brooks. 

At this point, your vet should take chest xrays and maybe some other lab tests just to verify whether there is any evidence of pneumonia. In an elderly dog showing this signs, it's important to rule out any potential underlying heart problems which can also cause coughing and lethargy.

Course of Action 

If you suspect your dog has kennel cough, or if your dog was diagnosed with kennel cough, but he is not getting any better, consult with your vet for instructions on what to do.

Generally, it's a rare instance to lose a dog with a competent immune system to a self-limiting disease such as kennel cough. However, for dogs who are predisposed to complications, the vet may prescribe a course of antibiotics such as Clavamox or doxycycline for dog kennel cough. These antibiotics are meant to prevent the onset of secondary bacterial infections. Antibiotics may also be prescribed to dogs who are starting to show mild to severe symptoms.

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