Hi Dr. Barchas,
I took my 18-month-old Labrador, Charlie, to the vet for coughing the other day. He told me that Charlie probably had kennel cough, but that it could be dog flu. Could you tell me what the difference is between these diseases?
John, Indianapolis, Indiana
Kennel cough and canine influenza (also known as dog flu) are very different diseases that cause similar symptoms.
Kennel cough, sometimes called Bordetella, is a common problem among dogs. It especially affects dogs under two years of age. It is highly contagious, and causes a dry cough that lasts one to three weeks. Most dogs feel well during this time, although they act like they have a tickle in the throat. Kennel cough almost never causes severe illness or death.
Canine influenza is a new and growing problem in dogs, and it is more serious than kennel cough. Canine influenza is related to the human flu virus. The virus started in horses, and started to affect dogs within the last few years. It is spreading throughout the United States. All dogs are thought to be at risk from this highly contagious disease. Canine influenza is spread by direct contact, or by sharing food and water bowls or toys.
Canine influenza can cause a cough similar to what is seen in kennel cough. However, many dogs also suffer worse symptoms, such as lethargy or nasal discharge. Fatal cases have occurred, but they are rare.
If your dog is coughing, contact your veterinarian immediately. Veterinary care can prevent most flu fatalities.