Many pet owners use “bordetella” and “kennel cough” interchangeably, but these terms have important differences. Bordetella is a bacterium, while kennel cough is an infectious disease caused by several viruses and bacteria combined. Vaccines can effectively reduce bordetella or kennel cough severity, but pet owners are often confused by the range of vaccine types. The Groves Veterinary Clinic team wants to clear up the confusion with our guide to bordetella and kennel cough and the best vaccines.

Bordetella’s role in kennel cough

Kennel cough goes by many names, including canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRD) and infectious tracheobronchitis. The disease is extremely common in puppies, but can affect dogs at any age—similar to the common cold in humans. Kennel cough results when dogs inhale respiratory viruses, bacteria, or both, that invade and inflame the upper airways. Bordetella is the most common bacteria to cause kennel cough, while parainfluenza and canine adenovirus type 2 are the most commonly implicated viruses. Kennel cough signs last from one to three weeks, and may include:

  • Characteristic dry, honking cough
  • Wretching or gagging
  • Tracheal sensitivity

Dogs at risk for bordetella and kennel cough

Puppies younger than 6 months of age are most likely to be infected with bordetella as a primary kennel cough pathogen, while young or older dogs may be more susceptible because they have weaker immune systems. Kennel cough spreads easily through airborne respiratory secretions and close dog-to-dog contact, so shelter pets and dogs who frequent the following are at the highest risk:

  • Doggie daycare
  • Dog parks
  • Groomers
  • Dog shows and competitions
  • Boarding facilities
  • Puppy or obedience classes

Bordetella and kennel cough treatment

Most dogs with mild kennel cough do not need specific treatments, except isolation at home, away from other dogs. If the cough does not resolve in a few days, your veterinarian may sample secretions from your dog’s nose or throat to determine the organisms causing the problem. Bordetella or other bacterial components can be treated with antibiotics, but viral infections must run their course. Cough suppressants may help if your dog is having trouble eating or sleeping because of a persistent or severe cough.

Bordetella and kennel cough complications

Most dogs with kennel cough have a honking cough, but continue to eat, drink, and act normally. Most recover in a few weeks with medications and supportive at-home care, but a select few—typically, puppies or older dogs with compromised immune systems—may develop pneumonia. Unlike dogs with kennel cough, dogs with pneumonia appear sick and lethargic, with a poor appetite, thick nasal discharge, and wet, productive cough. A simple chest X-ray can diagnose pneumonia and, if positive, your veterinarian will likely prescribe aggressive antibiotics and breathing treatments, and may keep your pet in the hospital’s isolation ward for IV fluids and supportive care.

Bordetella and kennel cough vaccines

The bordetella vaccine is recommended for all high-risk pets and is available in multiple forms to suit different pet needs:

  • Injectable bordetella — The injectable vaccine, which is administered under the skin, protects against Bordetella bacteria only, and requires two doses, two to four weeks apart, followed by annual boosters.
  • Intranasal bordetella — Intranasal vaccines are administered as nose drops, and protect against Bordetella bacteria along with parainfluenza virus and/or canine adenovirus. A single dose provides 12 months’ protection.
  • Oral bordetella — The oral vaccine is administered like a liquid oral medication, and protects against bordetella only. A single dose protects pets for 12 months.

Most veterinarians agree that the intranasal vaccine is the preferred version, because it protects against two to three common respiratory pathogens, and the others protect against only bordetella. The nose drops also induce faster, more effective protection, because the antigens that stimulate local immunity are delivered directly to the target nose and throat tissues. Injectable and oral forms are best for pets who are too stressed to safely receive the intranasal vaccine. The injectable canine distemper combination also protects against respiratory pathogens, but is less effective than the direct, intranasal kennel cough vaccine.

All bordetella and kennel cough vaccines work similarly to human influenza vaccines—they do not completely prevent infection, but can reduce severity and disease spread. Vaccinated dogs who do contract kennel cough recover faster and are far less likely to develop complications such as pneumonia. 

The Groves Veterinary Clinic team can assess your pet’s individual disease risk and will customize a vaccine protocol that provides comprehensive protection. Contact us to schedule a vaccination visit, or if you have questions about the best kennel cough vaccine for your pet.