Question: My dogs, Bart and Lisa, have to be boarded in a kennel whenever we travel abroad. The kennels insist on vaccinating for kennel cough every time, and we are a bit concerned as the dogs are getting older. Last summer, Lisa developed kennel cough in spite of the vaccine and was prescribed a strong course of antibiotics. Are there ways to prevent and treat the condition naturally?
T.D., via email
Answer: Kennel cough, or infectious tracheobronchitis, is a contagious infection that frequently affects dogs. Cats can also get it, although it is much less common. Most veterinarians see an upsurge in the incidence of kennel cough during Christmas, Easter and the summer, when owners board their dogs while they are away on holiday.
Kennel cough is most commonly caused by the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, but viruses such as the canine parainfluenza virus, canine herpes virus and canine adenovirus may also be responsible. When a large number of dogs are housed together in close proximity, as in kennels, it becomes easy for the bacteria or virus to be transmitted from an infected dog to the others.
Despite the name, kennel cough isn't just contracted in kennels. An infected dog can spread the disease to another dog living next door, at a veterinary practice, or any place where they come into close contact.
Dogs with kennel cough exhibit symptoms such as a dry cough, gagging, hacking or retching and sometimes sneezing. Some owners think their pet is actually choking on something. The cough can make a dog's throat very sensitive—so much so that just pulling on his or her collar during walks can trigger a coughing episode. Some dogs may also go off their food if they develop a fever (high temperature) because of the infection.
Kennel cough is unavoidable when dogs are in close proximity such as in parks, kennels, training areas and doggy day care. Most organizations therefore require the kennel cough vaccine to reduce the incidence of the infection and also to cover themselves from an insurance perspective.
However, the vaccine for kennel cough mainly protects against the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, so your dog may still get infected by the viruses that cause kennel cough.
In the UK, the vaccine is available only as intranasal drops and is said to be effective for just six months. Some companies claim theirs last longer, so check with your vet. Most dogs hate this vaccine, as it has to be squirted into their nose. In the USA and Europe, the vaccines are given by subcutaneous injection.
As animal vaccine manufacturing is now a multibillion-dollar industry, vaccines pop up for every known disease whether or not the disease itself is life-threatening. The kennel cough vaccine is very much optional according to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association and certainly not compulsory. The choice is yours.
Holistic vets recommend homeopathic 'nosodes' instead of vaccinating. These are a potentized homeopathic remedy prepared from diseased tissue or from an infected discharge. They may have a role as an alternative to conventional vaccines, but there is currently little scientific evidence that they offer the same protection.
For owners who are totally opposed to the idea of vaccinations, nosodes can be a good option, but check with a homeopathic vet about the manufacturer, as some work better than others. Following nosode administration, titre tests can be run (lab tests measuring the existence and level of disease-associated antibodies in blood) to evaluate whether it was effective in stimulating the immune system for kennel cough.
Most vets treat kennel cough with a combination of strong antibiotics and non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The antibiotics are for the infection, while the NSAIDs help to reduce the temperature and throat discomfort. Your dog may also be prescribed an antitussive to suppress the cough.
If you'd prefer to avoid the use of drugs, there are plenty of natural alternatives.
According to traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM), kennel cough is a form of 'wind cold' or 'wind heat' invasion that targets the trachea, or windpipe, nose and sinuses. Treatment is focused on expelling this 'wind', quieting the cough if it is dry and helping the dog expectorate if it is wet, or phlegm-producing.
A vet trained in TCVM will be able to prescribe suitable Chinese herbs depending on your dog's specific symptoms.
Acupressure, another form of traditional Chinese medicine, may also help. Acupoints GV14, GB20 and LI4 (masterpoint for the head and throat) and also LU7 (for dry coughs) can be massaged twice a day for 30 to 60 seconds to alleviate the cough. See my book, You Can Heal Your Pet, for how to give acupressure to your pet, or find a qualified vet.
Loquat. Used as a herbal liquid formula, this herb can soothe an itchy throat and hasten the healing process. As it's a sweet tasting liquid, most dogs love it. However, as it contains honey, use with care in diabetic dogs.
Suggested dosage: For dogs weighing less than 15 pounds: ¹⁄8 teaspoon daily; 15-50 pounds: ½ tsp daily; large dogs: ¾ to 1 tsp daily
Echinacea and golden seal. The herbs Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or Echinacea augustiflora) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) possess antiviral and antimicrobial properties and are well known for boosting immunity.
Nature's Answer make an alcohol-free tincture combining these herbs, which can be given as a treatment for one week after infection, or for four to five days prior to kennelling to help prevent infection. As it has a bitter taste, it's more palatable diluted in water or added to food.
Suggested dosage: For dogs weighing less than 15 pounds: seven drops twice daily; larger dogs:15 drops twice daily
Elderberries are the fruit of the elder tree and are rich in vitamins A, C, beta-carotene and antioxidants. Studies have found that elderberries are effective in easing the symptoms of colds and flu; in fact, scientists have so enthused about their benefits for relieving respiratory conditions that elderberry juice was used to treat a flu epidemic in Panama in Central America in 1995.
Bioflavonoids and other proteins in the juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell.
Elderberries are best picked in July and August, when they have a deep rich purple colour. See left for an elderberry cough remedy for dogs.
Homeopathic vet Dr Francis Hunter recommends using Bryonia 6C three to four times a day for one week if the cough is mild and worse with movement. If the cough persists and is dry and accompanied by retching, he recommends Drosera 6C (three to four times daily for five to seven days).
There are also several ready-made preparations available to buy online, such as Homeopet Cough, Pet Alive KC and Kennel Cough Defense.
Lemon, honey and turmeric drink
This home remedy is very effective in humans for coughs, and it works well with dogs too. Mix two tablespoons of honey with one teaspoon of lemon juice and a dash of turmeric powder in half a cup of warm water and give to your dog three to four times a day.
Just as in humans, vitamin C can boost your dog's immune system and help him recover or be used to prevent kennel cough beforehand.
Suggested dosage: For dogs weighing less than 15 pounds: 250 to 500 mg daily; 15-40 pounds: 500 mg daily; larger dogs: 1,000 mg daily. If the vitamin causes diarrhoea, adjust the dose accordingly