Is the kennel cough vaccine safe for my dog?

By Jason Michael Smith
November 10, 2014

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Image source: steamboatisland.org via bing.com/images

Authorizing your veterinarian to administer a kennel cough vaccine to your dog could be responsible for illness in your dog.

I recently came across an article about vaccinating dogs for kennel cough. The author explained how kennel cough vaccines could actually be responsible for spreading the disease. While many readers agreed with the thoughts expressed in her blog, there were a few comments that disagreed with her saying that her science was wrong, the article was poorly written, and she should remove or rewrite the page.

I found the article fascinating and wanted to dig a little deeper on the subject so I consulted a number of journals, web sites, and books to clarify the thoughts of the article.

Allow me to establish one thing:
Ten years ago, I served as a veterinary technician in the U.S. Army. The Army taught me a specific protocol for vaccinating dogs. Chances are, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) developed the protocol we used. The AAHA recently changed the protocol in 2011, so it is likely that what I was doing in practice a decade ago is much different from what veterinarians are doing today.

It is also evident to me that veterinary medicine is an ever-changing practice. While I have knowledge in some areas, the fact that I no longer practice under a licensed veterinarian suggests to me that I am no longer an expert in the field. This is why I turn to outside materials and consult with veterinary technicians every chance I get. I want to be a resource for my customers and to achieve that, I must stay up to date on the field of veterinary medicine.

In her blog post Three Critical Problems With the Kennel Cough Vaccine (and what you should do about them), author Dana Scott listed these problems:

  1. The vaccine doesn’t work that well.
  2. The vaccine is not safe.
  3. Somebody did some bad math.

Dr. Jean Dodds recommends administering the intranasal form of the kennel cough vaccine whenever it is required by a grooming or boarding facility. She writes, “However, none of these vaccines is fully effective and may not be needed at all.” (Dodds, 2014, para. 11)

The vaccine is not effective, according to Dr. Karen Becker, because kennel cough is caused by a myriad of infectious agents. She explained in her video what kennel cough is, what causes it, and why she believes the kennel cough vaccine is ineffective for preventing this illness.

Essentially, kennel cough is a self-limiting illness similar to the common cold in humans. Unfortunately, because it can be caused by the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica as well as the parainfluenza virus and numerous other agents, a single vaccine for kennel cough does little to prevent dogs from contracting the illness. This agrees with Scott’s research that states, “There are at least forty agents that cause bordetella…But only a couple of these agents are contained in the vaccine.” (Scott, n.d., para. 15).

According to Dr. Peter Dobias, administering a kennel cough vaccine to a healthy dog often resulted in the patient’s return visit “a few days later with actual symptoms of the disease” (Dobias, n.d., para. 9). This suggests the bordetella vaccine can actually cause the illness in otherwise healthy dogs.

And even if the vaccine itself doesn’t cause kennel cough in dogs, your dog can still become infected even after vaccination according to Dr. Becker.

All of these sources support Scott’s initial problem with the kennel cough vaccine. It simply does not work well.

The safety of the vaccine is questionable, however, research suggests that the intranasal form of the vaccine is the safest option if a facility requires you to get a kennel cough vaccination for your dog. Whitcomb (2011) quotes Dr. Ronald Shulz, professor and chair of the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at the University of Wisonsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine:

“Vaccines are, in general, fairly safe…But they are something you don’t want to use if you don’t need to.”

So the question now becomes, When is it appropriate to vaccinate a dog with a kennel cough vaccine? If you ask this question to any holistic veterinarian, chances are you will get the same answer: never. However, there are circumstances, as Dr. Becker explains, when she is “forced” to administer the vaccine because a boarding facility or groomer “will not accept the owner’s written waiver to ‘hold the facility harmless'” (Dodds, 2014, para. 12).

Dr. Becker explained, “Kennels, doggie day cares, and groomers, and some veterinarians require that dogs be vaccinated for kennel cough. They demand this to remove liability from themselves.” (Becker, 2012)

This is where it gets interesting. Scott described how the kennel cough vaccine can cause the illness. She stated, “Dogs that are vaccinated for kennel cough will shed that disease for up to 7 weeks and parainfluenza for a week” (Scott, n.d., para. 27). This means vaccinated dogs that are boarded could potentially infect other dogs in the boarding facility. And since the literature supports the argument that dogs can become infected after vaccination, the probability is very high that we are causing kennel cough in our dogs.

To support the argument that dogs shed the disease, I came across an interesting article. Rath, Register, et. al. (2008), presented a case study in Clinical Infectious Diseases where a human infant had contracted kennel cough. According to the article, the 6-week old African American infant presented with rapid breathing, low oxygen, and apnea to a hospital ER. A few days before his admission, the family dog received an attenuated intranasal kennel cough vaccine. The infant was treated and discharged. When his cultures came back, he was positive for kennel cough. The patient was not available for follow up. However, the article described how he had been in and out of the hospital five times by 8 months of age, each time for kennel cough.

When the second hospital treated him, they treated for whooping cough (caused by Bordetella pertussis). When another culture came back, they discovered the boy had actually contracted kennel cough. The article explained that the infant was immunocompetent, up-to-date on all shots, and otherwise healthy when the initial infection occurred.

Some veterinarians consider risk factors when it comes to recommending vaccinations. Dr. Michael Paul is one veterinarian who advocates for vaccinating dogs and cats with “non-core” vaccines when the individual animal has a high risk of exposure to a particular disease. Under this premise, any dog that is exposed to a communal population of dogs (such as what you would find at a veterinary clinic, groomer, boarding facility, or doggie day care) would fall into the high risk category for kennel cough. Paul (2012) asserts, “By asking a few questions, it is likely that virtually all dogs and cats should receive at least one so-called noncore vaccine every year.”

This is actually a promising position, since he is quoted saying at least once per year. In some areas, boarding facilities, doggie day cares, groomers, and veterinarians require the kennel cough vaccine to be administered twice per year, usually in 6-month intervals.

Here are a couple of interesting factoids from Scheiddeger (2014) from DVM360

  • Kennel cough remains a significant threat despite the availability of effective vaccines; the disease affected almost 2 percent of dogs seen in 2013.
  • Kennel cough was most often diagnosed in Kentucky, Utah and Florida.

Conclusions

It appears that the kennel cough vaccine is not an effective tool for mitigating disease in dogs. Instead, the vaccine causes illness and exposes other mammals (including humans) to B. bronchiseptica. While it would be wise to administer vaccines to animals with a higher risk of infection, it appears that a kennel cough vaccine would not work in this instance. Avoiding the kennel cough vaccine altogether would be the best choice but could leave pet owners with the burden of finding alternate care providers who do not require the vaccine or who will accept a signed waiver in lieu of the vaccine.

References

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