By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA

Many kennels, groomers, doggy daycares, and training facilities these days require dogs to be vaccinated for kennel cough before they are allowed to attend. But, just what is kennel cough, and how safe is the vaccine?

Kennel cough is a viral infection that passes between dogs, especially in stressful environments. It typically takes about 8-10 days after exposure for symptoms to develop, including sneezing, runny eyes or nose, and of course, a dry horrible-sounding cough.

While kennel cough certainly sounds scary because of its characteristic dry, hacking cough, it is a mild illness that can be easily treated with gentle, natural remedies. There are many resources to consult on treating kennel cough at home. These treatments typically include boosting the dog’s immune system and gently soothing its cough. Kennel cough is a self-limiting disease, which means that in all but a few rare cases, the illness will clear up on its own even without treatment.

Because kennel cough has a tendency to proliferate in situations in which multiple dogs are in close quarters, many establishment owners require dogs to receive the kennel cough, or bordatella, vaccine before allowing them onto their premises in an effort to keep kennel cough at bay. There are several problems to this practice, however, and mandatory vaccination isn’t providing the protection sought.

Problems with the kennel cough vaccine are that it does not prevent the animal from contracting kennel cough since it cannot provide immunity against all strains, the vaccine will often cause the animal to develop the symptoms of kennel cough, and the vaccine often causes the animal to shed the kennel cough virus for a short period, exposing all other animals that they come in contact with to the illness. (This is in addition to the problems associated with vaccination in general, included to the dangers of adjuvants, the onslaught to the immune system, vaccinosis, and vaccine-related side-effects.)

The 2010 Guidelines for the Vaccination of Dogs and Cats distributed by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association contains this statement: “Canine respiratory disease complex (kennel cough) is not a vaccine-preventable disease and the vaccine should only be used to help manage the disease.” This means that, at best, the vaccine will reduce the length and severity of the kennel cough symptoms by a minor degree if your animal contracts the illness.

Kennel cough is essentially the canine equivalent of the common cold in humans. This means two things: 1. it is not a serious illness, and is self-limiting (like the common cold, it will run its course naturally within a week or two). 2. there are many different strains of kennel cough out there (as there are with the common cold), so the vaccine itself has limited usefulness in that regard. The dog must be vaccinated for the same strain it is exposed to for the vaccine to even have a chance at being effective.

Following this logic, several well-known veterinarians have gone on record stating that they do not feel the bordatella vaccine is useful in preventing kennel cough in dogs:

Leading vaccination expert Dr Ronald Schultz states: “Don’t even use the injectible Bordatella. There are very real issues against injecting bacterins and the risk of the vaccine reactions does not outweigh the risk of contracting the disease. Kennel cough is not vaccine preventable because of the complex factors associated with this disease. Furthermore, kennel cough is often a mild to moderate self limiting disease, which I refer to as the ‘Canine Cold.’”

Doctor Karen Becker, DVM commented: “The truth is, these vaccines are ineffective and will not prevent your dog from getting kennel cough. The infection is caused by a wide variety of bacterial and viral agents, and no single vaccine can provide protection from them all.”

Dr. Patricia Monahan Jordan writes: “Kennel Cough is not a vaccine preventable disease, realize this and stop the boarding kennels from making the dogs sick. Stress, diet, crowding, ventilation—all play a part in who gets what and how bad they get it. Only vaccinate against what is necessary. Anytime you inject anything into a patient you have the potential of killing them.”

The animal’s own immune system is another large factor to consider when thinking about kennel cough and vaccination. If the animal has strong natural immunity, they are able to fight off a kennel cough infection naturally, even if exposed to the virus. In fact, exposing a healthy animal to low levels of the virus helps them to develop natural immunity to kennel cough. An article from the Whole Dog Journal states “These exposures, in essence, will ‘vaccinate’ the dog naturally, as his immune system learns to recognize and mount a defense against the ubiquitous pathogens.”

Kennel cough can be holistically prevented without the use of vaccination. Veterinarian Dr. Cynthia Lakenau explains that kennel cough manifests itself in the dog’s trachea. This usually only happens when the dog has tracheal irritation that gives the kennel cough virus a foothold to get into the dog’s system. This irritation usually results from the harsh chemical cleaning agents used in the kennel environment (hence its prevalence in dog kennels).

A study done by Dr. Christopher Day in the 1980’s effectively demonstrated that the kennel cough nosode is more effective than the vaccine at preventing an outbreak of kennel cough in boarding facilities. In a letter to congress, Dr. Gloria Dodd used Day’s research to point out: “There is a safer, effective form of immunization that has been documented for over 2000 years in Greece and Europe: the use of homeopathic vaccine nosodes. Today many veterinarians in this country, Great Britain, and Germany are using this preferred method of vaccination. Scientific studies have been published by Dr. Christopher Day (England) who proved the use of the Kennel Cough Nosode reduced the incidence of Kennel Cough in a boarding kennel of 254 dogs by 98% with no adverse reactions.” Owners who are concerned about kennel cough might look for a veterinarian in their area who offers nosode treatment rather than vaccinating their dogs.

Finally, in a pro-vaccination paper by Dr Daniel Kiel, the following information is contained:

1. “Findings consistent with rhinitis, bronchitis, or tracheitis were noted in 50-100% of vaccinated dogs following exposure to B. bronchiseptica.”

2. “In addition, bacterins may contain endotoxin, a component of gram-negative bacterial cell walls. Endotoxin contamination can lead to systemic vaccination reactions and occasionally death.”

3. “While these outbreaks did result in many [racing greyhounds] being temporarily unable to perform, to our knowledge, no deaths can be attributed to the pathogens associated with the KC complex.”

What this essentially says is that 50-100% of dogs vaccinated for kennel cough will still show symptoms of the illness after exposure, the vaccine sometimes leads to reactions including death, and kennel cough is not known to have caused any deaths. When we vaccinate for kennel cough, we choose to inject a vaccine that has caused death in some animals in an attempt to prevent an illness that is not known to cause death, with a vaccine that is less than 50% effective in preventing symptoms of that illness in the first place.

Consider the above information carefully when deciding whether or not to vaccinate your dog for kennel cough. No vaccine is without risk, and as owners, it is our responsibility to weigh the risks vs benefits for ourselves, and make the best decision possible for our pets.

The problem we run into is that while we are certainly free to choose not to vaccinate, owners of doggy establishments are also free to set their own policies regarding required vaccinations for dogs they will allow on their property. If you choose not to vaccinate your pup for kennel cough, you may run into trouble when looking for a place to take your dog for boarding, training, or daycare. But, there are a few things you can try:

Look for an establishment that shares your holistic viewpoint and has lighter vaccine requirements.

Share what you have learned about the dangers and ineffectiveness of the bordatella vaccination with the owner of the business, and see if they would be willing to grant you a waiver, or accept a nosode in place of vaccination.

Consider having one-on-one services instead of bringing your dog to a group facility. Many professionals will come to your home for pet sitting, mobile grooming, or private training. If your dog will not be around other dogs, there is no reason for vaccination.