Vets report largest kennel cough outbreak in 20 years

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2003

On a Monday morning a few weeks ago, D.J. Lindsay woke to the sound of her 4-year-old bull mastiff, Cedar, hacking like a cat with a hair ball.

"She was choking like something was caught in her throat," Lindsay said. " I actually thought she had a pig ear stuck in her throat, because the neighbor gave her a pig ear the night before."

When the coughing persisted, Lindsay took Cedar to the vet and discovered her dog had tracheobronchitis, or kennel cough, a throat infection that can lead to pneumonia.

Cedar wasn't alone. Juneau vets report a rash of the contagious throat infection, a bigger outbreak than some have seen in 20 years.

Juneau's two veterinary hospitals have examined between three and five infected animals every day for the last few months. Normally, vets see a few cases once or twice a year, usually among dogs who are from the same part of town, according to Dr. Lisa Kramer at Southeast Alaska Veterinary Clinic. Now, the sick dogs are coming from every corner of the city.

"We're swamped with cases, kennel cough is a real outbreak," said Dr. Michael New at Juneau Veterinary Hospital.

In very rare cases, the infection, which is a cousin of whooping cough, can be transmitted to people with compromised immune systems, New said.

Kramer said kennel cough is caused when a viral infection weakens the natural immune systems in the dog's airway, allowing the bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria to invade. The bacteria causes the hacking cough. The cough irritates the airway, making it harder for the dog to recover. Dogs sometimes cough up foamy clear phlegm.

"Some cases can turn into pneumonia and I really don't recommend leaving it untreated," New said. He said in some cases pneumonia can be fatal.

Vets treat the dogs with a cough suppressant and antibiotics. Dogs may be vaccinated for kennel cough, but in the recent outbreak some vaccinated dogs also became sick.

"I've seen vaccinated dogs that can have shorter courses and milder symptoms," New said. "I think everybody should have their dog vaccinated right now."

Vets are not sure if vaccinated dogs have become infected, because a different strain of bacteria caused the recent outbreak. Some studies have shown that the vaccination may not be effective for a full year, New said.

Cedar received a vaccination in November, but became severely ill anyway. The morning after their first vet visit, Lindsay found Cedar feverish and shaky, wheezing shallowly. She immediately returned to the animal hospital at 7 a.m. and waited in the parking lot for vets to arrive, afraid for her dog's life.

"You could just tell she was working to get in every breath," Lindsay said. "It was really scary."

Cedar's vet gave her an anti-inflammatory to help her breathe and the dog gradually recovered after a 10-day course of antibiotics, but still has a slight cough. Lindsay said.

The virus transmits through the air, and transmission can be more common in places where dogs congregate, like a kennel, obedience class or Sandy Beach, Kramer and New explained. It takes relatively little contact for a dog to become infected.

A standard kennel cough vaccination appointment costs about $50, and dogs may be vaccinated by injection or with nose drops. Vaccination will not help a dog that is already infected with the disease, Kramer said. The disease can incubate in the dog's system for up to two weeks before the dog will show symptoms. Kramer recommended quarantining a dog for two weeks if it may have been exposed to kennel cough.

"So many dogs were getting it, usually we'll see it for a couple weeks and it will start going down," Kramer said. "This time, after a couple of weeks, it just hit strong as ever."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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