Ask Elizabeth: January 2011

Dear Elizabeth: Our dog came home from the kennel last week with a bad case of kennel cough. Hes on antibiotics and hes gradually getting better. However, now our two cats are also coughing. Is it possible that they have kennel cough, even though they did not go to the kennel and they are cats? I never heard of cats getting kennel cough. If they have kennel cough, should they be treated with antibiotics, as well?

A. While there are several causes of kennel cough in dogs, including different viruses and bacteria, one of the causes, the bacteria known as Bordetella bronchiseptica, is contagious to cats and can occasionally cause symptoms like coughing. Clinical signs associated with Bordetella brochiseptica infection are much less common in cats than in dogs, and coughing is seen less often in infected cats than in dogs. Therefore, the syndrome is not usually called kennel cough in cats, but is instead called bordetellosis.

In healthy, adult cats, signs are rare and generally mild, and these cats generally recover in several weeks, often without treatment. Young kittens and cats with compromised immune systems (due to FeLV, FIV), or cats infected with other respiratory viral infections like herpes virus are prone to more severe infections, and may develop life-threatening pneumonia. Pneumonia due to Bordatella is also more common in cats that live in overcrowded conditions with poor hygiene and ventilation. Bordetella bronchiseptica can also infect very young or immunosuppressed people, so those individuals should not be around dogs or cats that have bordetellosis.

Bordetellosis usually affects the upper respiratory system in cats and can cause the following signs: fever, lethargy, sneezing, discharge from the eyes or nose, coughing, and/or enlarged lymph nodes below the jaw. Cats become infected when the Bordetella bacteria enter the mouth or nose and then attach themselves to the cilia (fine, hair-like projections) lining the upper respiratory tract. Once attached, the bacteria release toxins, which cause inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and, if the inflammation is severe enough, signs of respiratory disease become apparent. In dogs, the bacteria target the lining of the trachea and bronchi in the lungs, leading to tracheobronchitis and the tell-tale honking cough commonly known as kennel cough. In cats, upper respiratory symptoms (sneezing, runny eyes or nose) are much more common, but occasionally the bacteria target the lower respiratory tract, causing coughing and/or pneumonia.

If both your cats are coughing and your dog has been diagnosed with kennel cough, theres a good chance that your dog shared his Bordetella bacteria with the cats. To investigate this possibility, your veterinarian will want to examine the cats, excluding other causes of coughing and ensuring that pneumonia hasnt set in. A swab from the nasal passages or throat can be taken and cultured at a laboratory to see if Bordetella bronchiseptica is present, although the bacteria is present in many healthy cats that do not show disease symptoms. Simply finding the presence of Bordetella bronchiseptica is not proof that the bacteria is involved in causing illness and the bacteria may be a coincidental finding, so testing is usually undertaken only in seriously ill cats or in large outbreaks.

Antibiotics are effective in treating Bordetella bronchiseptica infections, and young kittens, cats with compromised immune systems or concurrent diseases, and those with severe disease should be treated. Your veterinarian will help you decide whether the cats need antibiotics or other supportive care like fluid therapy to combat dehydration. Your kitties will appreciate some tender nursing care as they recover from infection. Encourage them to eat by offering strongly flavored foods that you warm up slightly – the increased odor that emits from warmed food may tempt the cats to eat more than foods that dont have enticing smells.

Provide warm, quiet areas for them to rest and be on the look out for any signs of respiratory distress (open mouth breathing, rapid respiratory rate, blue-tinged gums) which could indicate worsening of the infection and pneumonia. Bordetella vaccines are available but are generally reserved for documented outbreaks in shelters or catteries. Ill keep my paws crossed that all the critters in your home stop coughing soon! Love, Elizabeth