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Can Humans Get Kennel Cough?

Dr. Michelle Frank

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August 10, 2023
CoughPro is not a medical product. It is a wellness app intended only for users to obtain a better understanding of their cough. It is not intended to diagnose, monitor, or treat any illness.

We at Hyfe, Inc., are a company devoted to working on tools to better understand the importance of cough. It is Hyfe’s intention in the future to seek regulatory approval for medical products that analyze cough in order that they may be used to diagnose, monitor, and facilitate better treatment of respiratory illnesses.

A dog with their owner

Kennel cough is a forceful, hacking cough observed among dogs due to a respiratory infection. Also known as infectious tracheobronchitis, kennel cough can seem like a serious infection but often subsides on its own after a while. However, while your dog is suffering from kennel cough, is it possible for you to contract kennel cough as well?

The short answer is: yes.

Kennel cough in humans is rare and scarcely documented in clinical literature. However, it is possible to develop symptoms following transmission from an infectious source. In this article, we will explore the causes of kennel cough in humans as well as the possible ways of transmission, identification, and treatment.

Who Can Get Kennel Cough?

Most documented cases of kennel cough among humans have been within a high-risk group. These individuals have their immunity lowered due to chronic disease, leukemia, organ transplant, HIV infection, spleen removal, or pregnancy1.

Among animals, kennel cough can be caused by a variety of organisms, including and not limited to, parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Mycoplasma sp., herpesvirus, and adenovirus. However, among humans, only Bordetella bronchiseptica is the pathogen we link with respiratory signs resembling those of kennel cough.

A well-known Bordetella species is Bordetella pertussis responsible for whooping cough. Investigative studies have observed that B. pertussis may have evolved from B. bronchiseptica which is often why symptoms overlap between whooping and kennel cough, and B. pertussis is suspected as the causative organism2

How Do Humans Get Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough initially got its name because of infectious outbreaks in kennels where dogs of different breeds and backgrounds were together. Today, kennel cough does not only occur in kennels – it can also appear following infectious exposure in any setting where animals reside.

While dogs, especially your pets, seem like possible sources of kennel cough, studies have not been able to prove a direct link to canines for the infection in humans. This essentially means that while dogs (and other animals) are the likeliest source, humans can also get the infection from other sources3.

Studies have also observed a possibility for the bacteria Bordetella sp. to colonize the respiratory pathways without causing infection. However, during moments of stress or even lowered immunity, signs of respiratory illness can occur due to the underlying presence of Bordetella bronchiseptica4. It is in these scenarios where the source is often not determined as the infection has occurred following a substantial period when exposure might also be unlikely.

Vaccinations against canine kennel cough may also be a source of transmission to humans5. The live vaccine is usually in the form of aerosol droplets. Following the vaccination pets might transmit the bacteria through these air droplets days to a couple of weeks following the vaccination. This could, in theory, be another potential source of infectious transmission as well.

Human-to-human contact, especially within hospital settings, is also a possible source of kennel cough bacteria transmission6.

What Are the Symptoms of Kennel Cough in Humans?

As we mentioned, many of those who are exposed to B. bronchiseptica may have the bacteria colonize their airways without causing any symptoms.

However, among immunocompromised individuals, an infection can range from maxillary sinusitis (sinusitis in the lower sinuses near the nose) and tracheobronchitis (inflammation of the windpipe and passages in the lungs) to severe pneumonia and septicemia (blood poisoning). Among children, studies have also shown B. bronchispetica to be responsible for whooping cough7.

Some of the primary symptoms of kennel cough in humans include8:

  • Fever
  • A cough that is hacking or choking in quality and can often resemble a whooping cough
  • An inflamed, sore throat, making swallowing difficult
  • Shortness of breath or chest discomfort
  • Other indications of a respiratory infection

Consequences of Kennel Cough in Humans

Most of the cases among immunocompromised individuals are severe or eventually lead to serious outcomes. This is because their immune system is not only unable to fight a primary infection but can also get further affected leading to super-infections with either colonized B. bronchispetica or other bacteria or viruses9.

Having respiratory pneumonia can result in serious consequences, especially among those who do not respond to treatment. Pleural effusions (water on the lungs), septicemia (blood poisoning), empyema (pus on the lungs), lung abscesses (pus in the lungs), and shock are among the few complications we associate with bacterial pneumonia10.

Woman coughing

What Are the Treatments for Kennel Cough in Humans?

For most of us, kennel cough bacteria should not cause serious illness. If symptoms such as a fever or cough persist for more than a week it is always advisable to check in with your doctor.

If you have signs of a serious respiratory illness, as highlighted above, check in with your doctor immediately. This is especially true if you are immunocompromised and may have had exposure to a dog or any other animal having signs of kennel cough.

The initial treatment for human kennel cough is antibiotics and cough suppressants. While initial tests can give your physician an idea of the possible infectious source, it can take a few days to confirm the exact cause of your respiratory symptoms which in this case is B. bronchiseptica. Tests are also conducted to analyze which antibiotic the bacteria is most likely to respond to. This is often why a combination of antibiotics is given based on the patient's recovery rate and the severity of the infection11.

You can take some precautionary steps to prevent kennel cough:

  • Ensure that your pets receive vaccination for kennel cough. Following the vaccination, maintain distance from your pet until they have fully absorbed the vaccine and are no longer breathing out droplets.
  • If you are immunocompromised, avoid kennels and veterinary clinics where your chances of exposure are high.
  • When your dog is sick, do not allow them to lick your face or hands.
  • Wash your hands regularly to prevent the spread of possible infection.

To Wrap Up

While your chances of contracting kennel cough from your dog are highly unlikely, it is possible. Even then getting severe illness due to kennel cough-causing bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica is low. Your risk increases if you are immunocompromised. 

Taking adequate precautions when you fall within a high-risk category can lower your risk of developing severe symptoms of kennel cough. Noticing signs of kennel cough should prompt you to visit your healthcare professional at the earliest. Some rest, antibiotics, and supportive care are standard management options for treating kennel cough in humans.

  1. Galeziok, M., Roberts, I., & Passalacqua, J. A. (2009). Bordetella bronchiseptica pneumonia in a man with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome: a case report. Journal of medical case reports, 3, 76. https://doi.org/10.1186/1752-1947-3-76[]
  2. Diavatopoulos, D. A., Cummings, C. A., Schouls, L. M., Brinig, M. M., Relman, D. A., & Mooi, F. R. (2005). Bordetella pertussis, the causative agent of whooping cough, evolved from a distinct, human-associated lineage of B. bronchiseptica. PLoS pathogens, 1(4), e45. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.0010045[]
  3. Dworkin, M. S., Sullivan, P. S., Buskin, S. E., Harrington, R. D., Olliffe, J., MacArthur, R. D., & Lopez, C. E. (1999). Bordetella bronchiseptica infection in human immunodeficiency virus-infected patients. Clinical infectious diseases: an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 28(5), 1095–1099. https://doi.org/10.1086/514761[]
  4. Gueirard, P., Weber, C., Le Coustumier, A., & Guiso, N. (1995). Human Bordetella bronchiseptica infection related to contact with infected animals: persistence of bacteria in host. Journal of clinical microbiology, 33(8), 2002–2006. https://doi.org/10.1128/jcm.33.8.2002-2006.1995[]
  5. Woolfrey, B. F., & Moody, J. A. (1991). Human infections associated with Bordetella bronchiseptica. Clinical microbiology reviews, 4(3), 243–255. https://doi.org/10.1128/CMR.4.3.243[]
  6. Huebner, E. S., Christman, B., Dummer, S., Tang, Y. W., & Goodman, S. (2006). Hospital-acquired Bordetella bronchiseptica infection following hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Journal of clinical microbiology, 44(7), 2581–2583. https://doi.org/10.1128/JCM.00510-06[]
  7. Berkelman R. L. (2003). Human illness associated with the use of veterinary vaccines. Clinical infectious diseases: an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 37(3), 407–414. https://doi.org/10.1086/375595[]
  8. Yacoub, A. T., Katayama, M., Tran, J., Zadikany, R., Kandula, M., & Greene, J. (2014). Bordetella bronchiseptica in the immunosuppressed population - a case series and review. Mediterranean Journal of Hematology and infectious diseases, 6(1), e2014031. https://doi.org/10.4084/MJHID.2014.031[]
  9. Nagarakanti, S., & Bishburg, E. (2021). Coinfection of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and Bordetella bronchiseptica Pneumonia in a Renal Transplant Patient. Cureus, 13(2), e13113. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.13113[]
  10. Mani, C. S., & Murray, D. L. (2012). Acute Pneumonia and Its Complications. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 235–245.e4. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-4377-2702-9.00034-9[]
  11. Wernli, D., Emonet, S., Schrenzel, J., & Harbarth, S. (2011). Evaluation of eight cases of confirmed Bordetella bronchiseptica infection and colonization over a 15-year period. Clinical microbiology and infection: the official publication of the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 17(2), 201–203. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-0691.2010.03258.x[]

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