How Bordetella Vaccines Work

By: Charles W. Bryant

Kennel Cough and Bordetella

Conditions like this are likely to be swimming in Bordetella bacteria.
Conditions like this are likely to be swimming in Bordetella bacteria.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

­Kennel cough, also known by its scientific name, Bordetellabronchiseptica, is a bacterial illness. Your dog is most likely to catch kennel cough when it spends extended periods of time in close quarters with other dogs. Poorly ventilated facilities also increase the chances a dog will acquire the illness. Boarding facilities and veterinarian offices are a couple of common places your dog might pick up kennel cough. Because of thi­s, boarding services require a Bordetella vaccination before your pooch can spend the night. You'll also need one if your dog needs to stay overnight at a vet office.

Like humans, a dog's respiratory system has built-in protection against invading infectious agents. One of these is called the mucociliary escalator. The cells of the respiratory tract have little hair-like structures poking out from them called cilia. This turns each cell into a little scrubby pad that moves debris that gets trapped in the mucous layer to the throat where it can be coughed up and expelled. When the escalator breaks down, the infection in the debris can make its way down the throat, through the airway and into the lungs. Things like stress, heavy dust, poor ventilation, cold temperatures and cigarette smoke can damage the mucociliary escalator.


So if your dog is stressed out and gets boarded in a crowded and dusty kennel, it could acquire kennel cough if it isn't vaccinated. The illness is characterized by a harsh and hacking cough. It sometimes sounds like the dog has something caught in its throat. Think of it like a canine common chest cold. Your dog may not appear sick otherwise, so if you don't notice a decrease in activity or appetite it doesn't mean you're in the clear.

The organisms of the Bordetella bronchiseptica can actually attach themselves directly to the cilia of your dog's respiratory cells, paralyzing them. They also have a knack for knocking the immune cells out of commission that would normally fight the bacteria. Bordetella can also be accompanied by some other common viruses, making it a more complex infection.

The incubation period, or the time it takes for your dog to show symptoms after exposure to kennel cough, is between two and 14 days. This means that it can take up to two weeks after your dog picks up the bacteria before you realize it. Because of this, many dog owners may do a little self-misdiagnosis. While dogs are the most common victims of Bordetella, it can also occur in cats, rabbits, pigs and guinea pigs. It may be possible for people to acquire the human version, whooping cough, but it's generally believed to be noncontagious to humans. Dogs get rid of the Bordetella organisms for about three months, and it's pretty contagious among other dogs.

The good news about kennel cough is that it usually just goes away, much like a human cold, in about four to 10 days. Some more serious bouts of the illness can last up to three weeks. Antibiotics are usually prescribed, but it's unclear exactly how effective they are. Cough suppressants to provide your dog with some temporary relief are also a possible treatment. Even though kennel cough is rarely a serious illness, puppies can be more vulnerable than older dogs to the risk of pneumonia.