Can Dogs Get Colds? And If So, Are They Contagious to Humans or Other Pets?

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There’s a cold and flu season for humans. But what about for our beloved four-legged family members? Can dogs get colds too? And if so, how should pet owners take care of them? And what about spreading the virus? If Roxy the bulldog comes down with something will Thelma get sick too? So many questions. We consulted Katie Kangas, DVM and integrative veterinarian to tell us everything we need to know about dog colds.

First, can dogs get colds?

Before we go any further, it’s important to point out that dogs don’t necessarily spread the common cold like humans do. They are more prone to an upper respiratory infection known as a kennel cough, which is the equivalent of what humans characterize as a cold, says Dr. Kangas. Unlike people who have designated cold and flu seasons, your four-legged friend is prone to catch get a kennel cough any time of the year.

“Kennel cough is viral, but it’s what we call a respiratory complex. The main organism that causes it is a bacteria called Bordetella, and it’s often combined with viral organisms, and that’s what’s produces the symptoms,” Dr. Kangas explains. “So, for dogs, it doesn’t really mimic the seasonal thing so much because classically viral organisms will be more virulent in those winter seasons and that’s not necessarily the case for dogs because they have that bacterial component.”

What causes kennel cough?

Just like the common cold in humans, your dog is prone to kennel cough if they’re exposed to other dogs who have it. Crowded and poorly ventilated places such as dog shelters and boarding kennels are high-risk for contamination, but even seemingly safe environments such as doggy daycares, training camps and dog parks can also put your pup at risk. Other factors such as stress can also lower the immune system’s resilience and trigger the disease in your pup.

And if you think your sturdy German shepherd is less at-risk than a five-pound chihuahua, think again. Just like human colds, kennel cough affects any and every dog breed. Those who are immune-suppressed and have conditions such as cancer or diabetes are especially at risk, but for the most part, every breed is fair game.

There’s also another caveat: “As far as breeds go, the one thing I would say is that certain brachycephalic breeds—bulldogs, Shih Tzus, pugs, etc.—which are canines with the pushed-in faces, are going to have less resilience in their airways than a dog with a classic-shaped skull,” Dr. Kangas elaborates. “They have more airway problems anyway so if they got an upper respiratory infection, they would be more likely to get sicker with it. Exposure risk is no different, but they’re likely to be more symptomatic.”

How do I know if my dog has kennel cough?

Kennel cough tends to linger for a little bit, but it goes away on its own after about three weeks, says Dr. Kangas. So, there’s no need to dash to the vet in a panic if your doggo starts to sneeze a bit. Signs and symptoms include:

  • a strong cough (often accompanied by a “honking” sound according to the American Kennel Club).
  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • low fever

I have multiple pets, do I have to worry about cross-contamination?

Thankfully, no. Just like dogs and cats don’t mix their food, they also don’t pass on their colds. “The upper respiratory stuff is dog- and cat-specific,” Dr. Kangas assures. So you can take a load off knowing that your little Garfield and Lassie can still hang out if one has an upper respiratory infection. (If you have other dogs, however, it’s best to keep them separated until the cough passes). As for humans, the pros at Purina assure us that the disease is rarely contagious and often, people who catch it already have immunocompromised systems. Your average healthy person is not at risk.

4 measures to help your pup fight off kennel cough

1. Support the immune system. Supplements such as Super Pet Nutrition’s Colostrum-LD Powder are a great addition to their diet to ensure that their immune system remains in tip-top shape. “Colostrum is actually a win-win because it also supports gut health. It’s made from the first milk that comes out when a baby is born, so it's rich in antibodies and immunoglobulins which all support the immune system,” explains Dr. Kangas. “And it’s a really easy one to give to both cats and dogs because it tastes like milk powder. You can mix it in water or put it in some wet food on a regular basis or when needed.” Bone broth, raw goat milk and fermented kefir are also good options to implement.

2. Feed a species-appropriate diet. Of course, your standard kibble is more convenient, but it’s also quite processed, which means it’s a little lacking in the nutrition department. Opt for freeze-dried foods or dehydrated foods which will contain more nutrients that support the overall health of your canine. “There are also companies now such as The Farmer’s Dog and Just Food for Dogs that can deliver fresh food for your dog,” Dr. Kangas advises.

3. Try an herbal supplement for the cold. Because kennel cough is typically self-limiting, all you need is a good remedy and some rest to help your best bud fend it off. Dr. Kangas recommends a natural supplement such as Pet Wellbeing’s Throat Gold for Dogs, which will help soothe irritation and agitation in the throat.

4. Consider getting your dog vaccinated. If your dog is in constant contact with other dogs, whether that’s at the park or at dog shows, then talk to your vet about getting them a Bordetella shot. “In general, healthy adult dogs that come into contact with large groups of other dogs should have a Bordetella vaccine annually, and boarding facilities may require a booster within the last six months,” per the AKC.

Of course, if you want to outfit your puppy in a nice sweater or fuzzy thermal, we won’t be mad at it.

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