What to do when your best pal is sick

When it comes to coughing dogs, it can be hard to tell if a trip to the veterinarian is necessary. Here's a good rule of thumb: If a dog is coughing for more than three days or is having trouble breathing, it's time to contact your primary care veterinarian.

Chances are, if your dog is sick for more than a few days, one of a handful of viral or bacterial pathogens —characterized as canine infectious respiratory diseases or CIRD — is the culprit.

Here's the lineup of the most common potential offenders: canine distemper virus, canine influenza virus, canine parainfluenza virus, canine adenovirus and Bordetella bronchiseptica.

While vaccines for distemper virus and canine adenovirus are included in a dog's core vaccines, most dogs are not vaccinated against canine influenza, canine parainfluenza or Bordetella bronchiseptica unless they have frequent contact with other dogs.

Canine Influenza

Of the respiratory diseases affecting dogs, canine influenza is the most severe and should be monitored and tested for by a veterinarian. In dogs, just as in humans, the flu can turn into bronchitis, pneumonia or a bacterial infection, which may turn deadly if left untreated.

Since antibiotics aren't effective in treating viral infections, veterinarians are not going to prescribe them, but they may provide cough suppressants, supportive care and further monitoring of the health of your dog.

A canine influenza vaccination can also be helpful.

Dogs often in close contact with other dogs should be vaccinated

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The vaccination for canine influenza may curb the symptoms and severity of the illness, but the vaccine is not guaranteed to prevent an infection. The vaccine must be administered annually and may require a booster and up to four weeks' time before providing full immunity.

Respiratory signs of canine parainfluenza virus may resemble those of canine influenza, but the viruses are unrelated and require different vaccines for protection.

Unlike in humans, there is no season for canine influenza, and dogs that contract the virus often get it from close contact with large groups of dogs.

Because of this, the vaccine is recommended for dogs who may attend dog shows, agility competitions, are frequent flyers at boarding facilities or dog parks, or find themselves around many other dogs often. 

Bordetella Bronchiseptica

Like canine influenza, Bordetella is a highly contagious respiratory infection, but unlike the other common respiratory diseases affecting dogs, the condition is caused by a bacterial infection rather than a virus.

Bordetella is often referred to as "kennel cough" largely due to the respiratory inflammation it causes and its ability to spread quickly in kennels and other areas where dogs are kept in close quarters. 

Dogs often in close contact with other dogs should be vaccinated for the disease annually, at least seven days prior to entering a high-risk environment. If supportive care and rest are not effective in treating Bordetella infections, dogs can be prescribed antibiotics.

Bordetella bronchiseptica likely won't kill an adult dog, but puppies are particularly susceptible to the bacteria, and it can be fatal in extreme cases if the disease is not addressed.

Know The Signs, Avoid The Spread

When coughing is severe, many dogs will cough so hard they vomit afterward. Owners may confuse this with gastrointestinal irritation or choking, but a vomiting dog can be a sign of respiratory disease.

Other signs of respiratory disease in dogs include fever, discharge of the nose and eyes, and loss of appetite.

An owner who suspects his or her dog may have a respiratory disease, especially the canine influenza virus, should plan with a veterinarian before arriving at the clinic to ensure the disease is isolated from other animals.

Dogs with respiratory disease should also avoid contact with other dogs for at least seven to 10 days from the infection's onset.

Jessica Bell is an assistant professor at WSU College of Veterinary Medicine and a small animal veterinarian in community practice at WSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

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