Most dogs will contract kennel cough at some point in their lives. If you keep dogs and cats in the same household, you may be wondering if kennel cough is contagious to cats.
Kennel cough (feline Bordetellosis) can be transmitted between dogs and cats, but cats are more likely to catch this infection from other cats. It might sound strange, but cats with kennel cough rarely develop a cough. Instead, they become feverish and sneeze repeatedly.
Kennel cough is not usually a serious condition, but it can occasionally cause pneumonia. In rare cases, kennel cough can even spread to humans. To protect yourself and your other household pets, we’ll provide comprehensive advice on how to detect, treat, and prevent kennel cough in cats.
What is Kennel Cough?
Kennel cough is a bacterial or viral infection that affects the animal’s respiratory system.
Think of it as your cat getting flu or catching a cold. Kennel cough is very common in dogs but quite rare in cats. Cats seem more resilient towards this infection, but they are not totally immune.
Hundreds of different bacteria and viruses can cause kennel cough. By far the most common culprit is a bacterium called Bordetella bronchiseptica (B. bronchiseptica).
When this infection occurs in dogs, it is called “canine Bordetella” or “Bordetella-type kennel cough.” When it occurs in cats, it is called “feline Bordetellosis.”
How Does Kennel Cough Spread Between Dogs and Cats?
If a cat contracts kennel cough, they’ve usually caught it from another cat. However, it is possible for cats to catch kennel cough from dogs.
The bacteria and viruses that cause kennel cough are airborne, highly contagious, and very difficult to destroy. There are several ways a cat could catch kennel cough from a dog. These include:
- Bodily contact when playing or fighting.
- Rubbing noses or faces (disease is sometimes spread through nasal discharge).
- Breathing the same air (sneezing and coughing will speed up the spread of disease).
- Sharing water bowls, food bowls, and sleeping areas – even if these have been cleaned in between use. Bordetella bacteria can survive for two weeks even when disinfectants are used.
What Causes Kennel Cough (Bordetella) in Cats?
If a dog catches Bordetella, this usually happens because they’ve contracted a virus and its immune system has become compromised. Bordetella is then able to take hold and cause a secondary bacterial infection.
Cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) are also more susceptible to secondary bacterial infections such as Bordetella.
However, according to BMJ, Bordetella doesn’t only affect cats with compromised immune systems. Some cats with kennel cough are otherwise fit and healthy and have no pre-existing viruses.
What does this mean for cat owners? Well, it suggests all cats are potentially susceptible, not just those that are weak, old, or chronically ill. This means that all cat owners should be aware of the dangers of kennel cough and should know how to prevent it.
Although all cats are potentially susceptible to kennel cough, there are some risk factors that increase a cat’s chances of becoming infected. These include:
- Living in a cattery or rescue shelter, even for short periods. Cats living in a group setting (with a transient population) are much more likely to catch kennel cough.
- Being a young kitten or a very old cat. This increases susceptibility to a variety of viral and bacterial infections due to a weakened immune system. As mentioned, weak immunity is not a pre-condition for contracting feline Bordetellosis, but it may make cats more vulnerable.
- Living in the same house as a dog who has recently had a respiratory illness.
- Living in a multi-cat household (especially if one or more cat spends time outdoors).
- Going outdoors and interacting with other animals. Kennel cough can be picked up from communal outdoor spaces such as parks and gardens.
- Participating in shows or events where there will be other animals.
It would be extremely rare to see kennel cough in a middle-aged, domestic cat who lives indoors in a single-pet household. However, one or more of the above factors can dramatically increase a cat’s chances of developing feline Bordetellosis.
Signs and Symptoms
It’s obvious when a dog has this condition because they’ll start to cough very loudly, hence the name “kennel cough.” This is because the Bordetella bacteria cause inflammation in the dog’s windpipe (i.e., the lower respiratory tract).
On the other hand, cats with Bordetella tend to experience inflammation in their upper respiratory tract (the sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx, and larynx).
Symptoms do present slightly differently in cats compared to dogs because the infection usually stays confined to the upper respiratory tract.
So, what are the symptoms of kennel cough in cats? According to NCBI, the clearest sign is sneezing. Cats with Bordetella often start sneezing violently. Additional symptoms include:
- Nasal Discharge
- Enlarged and Tender Lymph Nodes
- Reduced Appetite and Weight Loss
If cats do develop a cough, this suggests that the infection is more severe. A coughing cat may have pneumonia or another lower respiratory tract infection, so they should be seen by a vet immediately.
How Soon Will Cats Show Symptoms of Kennel Cough?
If your cat does catch this infection, they won’t necessarily show symptoms straight away. The kennel cough incubation period ranges from 2 – 14 days, so it could take up to 2 weeks for your cat to become visibly sick.
Even if your cat seems resistant to kennel cough, don’t allow your cat to interact with an infected dog until the dog is completely healed. Though it might appear as if your cat is immune to kennel cough, the infection might simply be waiting to take hold.
How Serious Is Kennel Cough in Cats?
In most cases, kennel cough is a mild condition that can be treated with a course of antibiotics and some TLC at home.
However, cats should be seen by a vet and treated as early as possible. The longer the respiratory disease is left untreated, the more damage will be caused to the cat’s respiratory tract.
If left untreated, kennel cough may develop into a severe respiratory tract disease, such as pneumonia. This is more likely to occur in cats who are chronically ill or very young. As mentioned, coughing is a tell-tale sign to look out for.
According to ASM Science, approximately 25% of cats diagnosed with severe respiratory disease are infected with Bordetella bronchiseptica.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the Bordetella bronchiseptica is the only infection to blame in these cases as the cats may have additional infections. However, we do know that Bordetella can cause severe respiratory disease in cats as well as dogs.
So, in short, kennel cough is usually a minor condition, but it can become life-threatening in a very small number of cases. Cats with suspected symptoms should be seen by a vet as soon as possible, especially if the cat is coughing/honking.
How Long is Kennel Cough Contagious?
Dogs seem to be able to shake off kennel cough quite quickly and do not usually remain infected with the bacteria once they have recovered. Cats, on the other hand, may remain infected with Bordetella for 2-3 months after they have recovered.
This is important because it means other cats and dogs in the household are at risk of infection. During (and sometimes after) the recovery period, it will be necessary to separate infected pets from other pets in the household.
Can Kennel Cough Spread to Humans?
Though it is quite unlikely, Bordetella can be transferred between animals and humans. According to Wiley, this is more likely to happen if you have cystic fibrosis or another condition that compromises your immune system.
In cases where humans have contracted this condition from their pets, symptoms have ranged from very mild (sneezing and nasal discharge) to very severe (pneumonia).
To prevent kennel cough in humans, it’s vital to follow your vet’s treatment advice and practice good hygiene when handling your pet. If you have a life-long immunosuppressive disease, you may also consider vaccinating your pets against Bordetella bronchiseptica.
How to Treat Kennel Cough in Cats
Although cats are more resistant to Bordetella, those that do become infected will require treatment.
The first step is to take your cat to the vet. To make a diagnosis, the vet will ask a series of questions and may take a swab from the inside of your cat’s mouth. Treatment often involves a combination of:
Your vet will prescribe an appropriate antibiotic such as Doxycycline. The vet usually administers the first dose, and then follow-up doses may be administered at home.
When we catch the flu, we are always told to drink more fluids, and cats are no different. Make sure your cat has easy access to clean drinking water.
You should try placing a few bowls of water in different locations throughout the home, so your cat does not have to travel far for a drink. In severe cases of kennel cough, cats might be kept overnight and rehydrated through a drip.
Cats need their strength to fight off the infection, so rest and rehab are essential. Cats feel vulnerable when they are ill, so they may try to move around frequently.
Try to minimize noise and stress in the household, so your cat feels less of a need to move around. Cats who are seriously ill may need to be confined to an enclosure to force them to rest. Your vet will let you know if this is necessary.
Cough Suppressant or Throat Soother
This may be prescribed if your cat is suffering from severe coughing.
If you are not doing so already, you should provide your cat with a “complete” or “balanced” pet food. Choose wet food over dry food for most of your cat’s meals as this type of food is generally better quality and helps to prevent dehydration.
Your vet may also recommend supplements such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, or vitamins to support recovery. Don’t offer your cat supplements without first taking the advice of your vet as feline nutrition can be very complicated.
How to Make Your Cat Comfortable
Feline Bordetellosis can cause extreme lethargy. Your cat may experience sinus problems, a sore throat, and bodily discomfort. To help your cat feel more comfortable, consider the following:
- If your vet has provided you with medication, be sure to follow their advice and administer your cat’s medication at the instructed time.
- If your cat has nasal discharge or runny eyes, take a clean, soft cloth (i.e., microfiber or disposable cotton pad) and rub this gently across its face. Avoid direct contact with its eyes. Make sure you wash or dispose of the cloths after use to prevent the spread of infection.
- Make sure your cat’s water bowl is within easy reach at all times.
- Buy your cat’s favorite meal and offer it to them. You could sprinkle a few chunks of tuna on its food to kick-start its appetite. Your vet may provide you with specific feeding advice during the recovery period, so be sure to follow this.
- Check the ambient temperature is comfortable, especially if you are confining your cat to one room. There should be enough ventilation for your cat to get some fresh air, but they should not be allowed to get cold. The ideal temperature for most cats is about 70°F but monitor your cat’s behavior to check they are feeling comfortable. If your cat usually cuddles up to another cat, dog, or human at night, provide them with a warm blanket or igloo style bed to ensure they stay warm overnight.
Most cats will appreciate being left alone when they are sick. You should monitor your pet closely but don’t try to stroke or play with them during this time.
How to Prevent Kennel Cough in Cats
If one of your animals does contract this infection, there are ways you can prevent the spread of infection. Here are some tips to consider:
Keep the house as clean as possible, especially in sleeping and eating areas. Buy a pet-friendly disinfectant cleaning spray and use this daily.
As mentioned, disinfectants are not necessarily able to destroy Bordetella, but they will be effective against many other microbes. Keep your cat’s litter box clean and dispose of any dog poop immediately to prevent the spread of infection.
Make sure each animal has its own resources (bed, food/drink bowl, blanket) to prevent the spread of infection.
If you notice one animal starting to become sick, isolate them immediately and take them to the vet. Try to isolate the animal to a completely different (ventilated) room and keep the door shut.
The animal should remain isolated during the recovery period to prevent the spread of infection. If this is not practical, you can still try to discourage bodily contact between your pets and keep shared areas clean and disinfected during this time.
Wash Your Hands
Wash your hands after you handle an infected pet as you could pass bacteria on to your other animals, or even become infected yourself.
For extra protection, you could also use disposable gloves when handling your pet, but don’t forget to wash your hands, too.
A Healthy Diet
Cats who eat a healthy diet and stay hydrated are less likely to fall sick.
Stress weakens the immune system and makes pets more vulnerable to infections.
Everyday household stressors for cats include excessive noise, too many visitors, being stroked/restrained against their will, and stray cats accessing the house or garden.
Choose a Cat Sitter
If you are going on vacation and you need to arrange care for your pet, opt for a visiting cat sitter rather than sending your cat off to a cattery.
As mentioned, cats are much more likely to contract kennel cough when they stay in an enclosed environment with lots of other cats.
In certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to vaccinate your animals against Bordetella. If you have repeated bouts of infection inside your home, this suggests a vaccination may be necessary.
Although you can minimize the risk of kennel cough, you cannot eliminate it completely. Some cats will inevitably catch this infection at some point in their lives because airborne bacteria such as Bordetella cannot be eradicated entirely.
As a pet owner, the best you can do is try to minimize the risk and provide timely treatment for your cat if they do fall sick.
Should I Vaccinate My Cat Against Kennel Cough?
The average domestic cat should not be vaccinated against Bordetella bronchiseptica because this infection is relatively rare in domestic cats, and the infection usually only causes mild symptoms. Vaccination may be appropriate in the following scenarios:
- Cats living in a group setting such as a shelter, cattery or breeding house should usually be vaccinated against As mentioned, Bordetella can cause respiratory disease in healthy cats (not just those with a virus or weakened immunity), so even healthy cats living in a group setting would benefit from the vaccination.
- Pets being adopted from a shelter (if they don’t have the vaccine already). If you are adopting a cat from a shelter and you have a cat or dog in the house already, they might also benefit from being vaccinated.
- Pets living in the same household after one animal has become infected. As mentioned, cats can harbor the bacteria for several months after the infection has cleared up, and it’s not always practical to isolate pets inside the home.
- Cats with weakened immunity may be considered appropriate patients.
- If there have been repeated bouts of sickness in one household
The vaccine for Bordetella is available in most countries. It is made available on a case-by-case basis, so speak to your vet for advice as cats can develop adverse reactions to vaccines.
Can Dogs Catch Kennel Cough from Cats?
There is good evidence to suggest that dogs can catch kennel cough from cats. Because cats are generally more resistant to Bordetella, they can become hosts of this bacteria but not necessarily become sick themselves.
Cats who have lived in shelters or group settings are most likely to be carriers of Bordetella bronchiseptica. If you are adopting a cat from a shelter and you already have a dog, you might consider vaccinating your dog against Bordetella.
Does My Cat Have Kennel Cough?
Feline Bordetellosis is rare but not unheard of. If your cat goes outdoors, spends time with other dogs and cats, or has a weakened immune system, the risk of contracting kennel cough is increased.
Kennel cough can take up to 2 weeks to manifest itself, and cats have different symptoms to dogs, so diagnosing kennel cough is not always straightforward.
If you’re worried about kennel cough, take a look at your cat’s symptoms. Are they sneezing often? Do they have any nasal discharge? If so, kennel cough is a possibility.
It is important to remember that Bordetella can cause severe respiratory disease in cats (as well as dogs). If your cat is frequently coughing, this should be investigated immediately because it is indicative of pneumonia.
Cats can catch kennel cough from dogs, but we often forget that dogs can catch kennel cough from cats, too. In some cases, cats can be carriers of kennel cough without ever showing any symptoms.
Looking after dogs and cats at the same time can be challenging, but the tips in this guide should help to keep kennel cough at bay.