Why does my dog need the kennel cough vaccine?

Dr. Pattie examining a dog's face

“Kennel cough” is a nickname for a constellation of about a dozen different canine infectious upper respiratory illnesses: viruses and bacteria, some normal inhabitants of the airways which can become opportunistic infections, and some pathologic invaders.  All of these diseases look the same clinically: a coughing dog (dry/hacking or quiet/moist), often with runny eyes or runny nose.  “Kennel cough” does not mean to signify any disease in particular.  Most of these illnesses are self-limiting and don’t pose a major health threat on their own, but the more typical real-life scenario is a patient fighting a mixed-bag of multiple infectious agents which combine to create life-threatening disease.  Not all of these diseases have vaccines, therefore we strive to prevent what we can, and that way if they catch an illness that was not immunized for they may not develop a more severe situation.

One of these preventable illnesses is Bordetella bronchiseptica; a highly contagious bacterial species which typically causes an aggravating inflammation of the large airways in the chest (trachea and bronchi).  Bordetella is most likely to manifest as clinical illness in the youngest populations of dogs; we continue to vaccinate the healthy adults as they are usually catching it and shedding it, but we would never know it as they aren’t coughing.  For Bordetella, it is best to use an intranasal vaccine (just like a FluMist), which is the easiest, most safest way to vaccinate an individual.  It also targets the airways where the disease occurs.

It is important to remember that immunizations will not guarantee that the illness can be 100% prevented, but they will reduce the severity of the illness in the individual and reduce the shedding of the agent among the group.  Immunizations are there to protect not only the individual, but the population as well.  By inciting“herd immunity,” we can better prevent the presence and spread of illness in the general group.

A veterinary hospital lobby is a hotbed of nose-to-nose contact, excited sneezing and vocalizations (think saliva and nasal secretions in the air), in a facility where we have a unique challenge to admit and treat ill patients while simultaneously seeing wellness visits with healthy patients.  Added to this mix is a general decrease in natural immunity due to the stress of coming in that many patients feel, and everyone is concentrated into a relatively small space.  This challenge is managed with a multimodal approach of environmental hygiene, strategic planning of appointments/procedures, biosecurity measures, and clear-cut administrative policies (such as immunization requirements, also known as “core” vaccinations).  Without certain policies in place, a veterinary hospital would become a major source of disease.

This concept applies to any facility where concentrated/stressed populations exist, such as grooming salons, doggie daycare, boarding, and dog parks.  Any exposure to these areas would thus be an indication for this core vaccine.  Therefore, any dog whose lifestyle includes these interactions should be vaccinated for Bordetella at least once per year, and forever monitored for any signs of “kennel cough.”