Kennel cough, also called canine cough, is becoming more common in the Nelson area and all Nelson veterinarians are seeing more cases.

There are several viral and bacterial causes of kennel cough. The most common cause in New Zealand is a bacterium called Bordetella bronchiseptica. It is closely related to the germ that causes whooping cough in people, Bordetella pertussis, and the disease has quite a few similarities.

It is quite contagious, being spread both by tiny droplets in the air as well as by saliva or sputum which sticks to surfaces that other dogs are in contact with. The germ isn’t long-lasting in the environment since it is quite susceptible to drying out. This means that spread is most likely in areas where dogs congregate and spend time. Obviously close contact between dogs increases risk, especially when they are in an enclosed space so that the concentration of droplets in the air is increased. Dogs like to sniff and lick where other dogs have been and this is clearly risky behaviour if kennel cough is about.

Kennel cough is not prevalent in all communities in New Zealand. It was formerly uncommon in the Nelson area but small outbreaks are now seen quite often by Nelson veterinarians. In general the high risk activities are boarding in kennels (hence the name), attending dog shows, dog trials and agility events. Attending a veterinary clinic can pose a risk too. This is minimised at Halifax Veterinary Centre by good hygiene practices and good ventilation.



The key feature of kennel cough is repeated bouts of a rasping, hacking cough followed by a dry retch in which the dog may bring up white froth or sputum. The sound is often likened to that of an old smoker hoicking up sputum. The cough can persist for weeks. Runny eyes can be a feature in viral forms of the disease.

Occasionally dogs are feverish and obviously ill but most dogs continue to eat and drink. Severe illness and death are rare.



Keeping the dog at home, resting and offering frequent small tempting meals and having water available – in short, good old-fashioned nursing care – is fine for the milder cases.

Antibiotics can be helpful in limiting symptoms and shortening the course of the disease caused by the Bordetella germ. Cough suppressants are helpful, especially low doses of codeine.



Vaccination gives good but not complete protection against kennel cough. Protection is not as long-lasting as for diseases such as distemper, hepatitis or parvovirus and yearly boosters are needed. If your dog goes into high risk situations discuss with the veterinarians or nurses at Halifax whether to give boosters at shorter intervals.

There is both an injectable and an intranasal vaccine available. The benefits of the intranasal vaccine are that only a single dose is needed to provide protection initially, and your dog is already getting useful protection after just 3-4 days. This makes this vaccine particularly useful when you need to put your dog into a boarding kennel at short notice. This vaccine makes the body produce antibodies (protective proteins that neutralise germs) locally in the lining tissues of the nose as well as those that circulate in the blood. Some studies suggest that this makes it more effective.

There are two disadvantages with the intranasal vaccine. About one in five dogs do develop mild snuffly symptoms. Of more concern to many owners and vets is that many dogs are surprisingly resentful of having 3-4 drops of vaccine instilled in their nostrils, whereas they are usually blissfully unconcerned about injections. This is opposite to most of us, who are needle phobic.

The injectable vaccine needs two doses 2-4 weeks apart to give full immunity, and the last injection should ideally be at least a week before going into boarding kennels. Of all the vaccinations we give dogs this is the one most likely to cause a pain reaction and sometimes there is a temporary lump at the injection site though we are not often seeing this with recent batches of the vaccine.


We can advise on the best vaccination program for your dog, taking into account the risks in your community, your dog’s activities, and temperament.


Is there a risk to people from kennel cough?

Yes, but the risk is very small. People with poor immune systems due to cancer chemotherapy or AIDS would be advised to have their dogs vaccinated against kennel cough using the injectable vaccines.