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Cats can catch kennel cough

Stephen Sheldon

So, you thought kennel cough was a dog disease right? Think again.

Kennel cough, or bordetella bronchiseptica, does indeed infect our feline friends. And, you probably guessed it, there is a new vaccine that protects against it. We’ll discuss the disease and whether or not to vaccinate your cat.

Feline kennel cough is caused by the organism bordetella bronchiseptica, a highly contagious bacteria. It is a very common problem in dogs and causes bronchitis that can progress to pneumonia. In dogs it is easily treated with antibiotics, cough suppressants, humidifiers and chest coupage, which means slapping them gently on the sides to loosen phlegm and other respiratory secretions.



Kennel cough acts similarly in cats and the clinical signs mimic feline calici virus, herpes virus and possibly chlamydia. Most of these clinical sign are related to the upper respiratory system.

Kennel cough usually causes a more pronounced cough than a sneeze; this cough may be one of its hallmarks. Dogs are good at hacking, but to cats it is kind of strange.



Other common symptoms of kennel cough include: loss of appetite, listlessness, fever, runny eyes, nasal discharge and difficulty breathing. In other words, these kitties are pooped and snotty.

We as clinicians (and you as owners too) often wondered why a well-immunized kitty would develop upper respiratory illness. Now we are being told it was probably kennel cough.

According to some estimates, up to 85 percent of cats living in multi-cat households have been exposed to kennel cough while another study showed the bacteria isolated from only 3.1 percent of household cats.



Some claim kennel cough is a commensal organism – like the good bacteria present in your GI tract it causes no harm. Researchers admit they are unsure if the experimental studies will have significance in the real cat world and suspect conditions like overcrowding, stress and poor ventilation play a role in the development of kennel cough.

Other veterinarians estimate that only 1 percent of cats with upper respiratory problems had kennel cough. So there is some controversy out there.

We treat kennel cough the same way in cats as we do in dogs: antibiotics, cough suppressants, humidifiers, etc. Cats usually need some nutritional support as well, either in the form of intravenous or subcutaneous fluids and easy to eat and digest nutritional supplements.

In this aspect, cats are a little more dainty than dogs; you’ve got to keep them eating! Swabs of the throat and tonsils are necessary to confirm a diagnosis of kennel cough.

Now on to the vaccine. The vaccine is an intranasal vaccine requiring a few drops in the nose. It’s pretty easy to do and no injections are needed. Reactions are reported in about 2 percent of cats.

Some of the veterinarians I have communicated with have seen these reactions, which include sneezing, coughing and fevers. Most of the cats getting vaccinated are from multi-cat households, catteries, shelters or go to cat shows. Our clinic cat did indeed come down with a confirmed case of kennel cough years ago.

The discussions on-line by veterinarians are not very favorable at this time. It seems if prevalence is only 1 percent but reactions to vaccination are 2 percent, the risk outweighs the benefit. However, some of our best scientific minds are saying that kennel cough is indeed a problem worthy of concern.

I have seen a lot of well-cared for and vaccinated kitties come down with upper respiratory symptoms that mimic kennel cough, but I have yet to have a cat fail to respond to treatment.

Due to the cost of culture and sensitivity swabs we rarely do them on a first time sneezing kitty unless response to treatment is very poor The vaccine may very well have some indication for at-risk kitties. As always, discuss this and other issues with your veterinarian.

Dr. Stephen Sheldon owns Valley Veterinary Services and practices by appointment at Alpine Meadows Animal Hospital in Edwards. He can be reached at 970-748-3062.


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