Chronic Bronchitis in a Dog: What Started as Undiagnosed Kennel Cough—Kolchak’s Story

Infectious bronchitis, Kennel Cough, can sometimes progress to life-threatening bronchopneumonia or chronic bronchitis.

A dog sick with Kennel Cough may or may not need medical treatment depending on how hard the infection hits them. And sometimes things can get complicated.

Thank you, Jodi Chick, for sharing Kol’s story.

Chronic Bronchitis in a Dog: What Started as Undiagnosed Kennel Cough—Kolchak's Story

Kolchak’s story

Looking back, I wish I had just trusted my gut.

Do you know that feeling? The one in the pit of your stomach that tells you something just isn’t quite right? Why do we ignore it? Maybe if I had listened to the twinge of uncertainty, my puppy never would have gotten so sick.

Kolchak gets sick

Chronic Bronchitis in a Dog: What Started with a Kennel Cough Diagnosis—Kolchak's Story

It all started on a hot summer day.

Excited that our 16-week old puggle puppy, Kolchak, had his final puppy shots and the all-clear from our vet to hit the town, we headed the dog park for a romp in the dog pound. We knew he wasn’t feeling 100%. A few days earlier, he’d had been vaccinated for a host of canine illnesses: Distemper, Hepatitis, Leptospirosis, Parvo, Parainfluenza, Giardia, and Bordetella (Kennel Cough).

Since then, he’d been a little subdued, something our vet attributed to the hot weather and the vaccinations.

The vet assured us we had nothing to worry about. 

Severe coughing

It never even crossed our minds really. We thought that maybe an afternoon of water and fun would bring back that fun, crazy puggle puppy we were already head over heels in love with. As Kol bounced across the park to play, he suddenly sat down and started coughing. HARD.

We bundled him up and headed back to the vet.

The vet gave him a quick once over, chuckled at how new pet owners tend to over-react and sent us home. Kolchak was just “puggy”, he said and that cough was perfectly normal for a brachycephalic breed. I felt silly – and relieved. My puppy was fine. He said he’d give him a Kennel Cough booster “just in case” and sent us off. We went home and settled into life as new puppy owners: puppy-proofing, hiding our shoes and bandaging our well-nipped fingers and toes.

Three weeks later, that cough surfaced again, this time at puppy class.

Kolchak was back to his normal, bouncy self and we had started an obedience class in hopes of curbing some of his puppy antics. Every class started with some playtime and we loved watching him chase the other dogs. When he stopped playing to have what sounded to us like an asthma attack, I was crushed. Our instructor was concerned and suggested we leave class and get Kolchak checked out by the vet.

Something isn’t right

I felt a little sheepish bringing him in after the vet had already told us twice that he was just fine, but I trusted our instructor and she had scads more experience than I did. The vet listened to my story, listened with his stethoscope, snarfed something up his nose and sent us on our way. We had nothing to worry about.

But something was bothering me. 

In the pit of my stomach, I felt like something was just off, but our vet had to know better than me, right? I mean, this was his job. Of course, he’d tell me if my puppy was sick? We brushed it off and I resolved to be less of a worrywart.

Kolchak’s cough isn’t going away

Over the next few weeks, that cough kept turning up.

Not every day. Not even often – when he exerted himself; when we were out being active; and when he pulled against the leash. I used to give him a stern lecture about leash pulling and how he was “choking himself, silly puppy”.

Over five months, we went to the vet six times. 

Four times, our vet gave Kolchak Bordetella booster to help “ease my fears”. Each time I left $100 poorer and feeling very silly.

But when Kolchak started to get “weepy eyes” that I had to wipe clean multiple times a day, that gut feeling that something wasn’t right just wouldn’t go away. We went back to the vet, who I could tell was losing patience with me.

I want real answers

Not to be denied this time, I insisted something was wrong. 

The vet wrote a prescription to “help take care of that cough” and diagnosed Kolchak with blocked tear ducts, recommending a pricey surgery to open them up.

We were confident that we would finally get our puppy well again.

We were excited about surgery, but we were ecstatic that with this new medication, the cough stopped. He was healthy! We stopped worrying and started enjoying him. He was settling down into a calmer puppy that napped, relaxed on the couch and didn’t run 24/7.

The cough returns

Until one day, about 6 months after that first coughing fit, he refused his breakfast and then his lunch. 

He half-heartedly licked at his dinner and I knew something was wrong. Kolchak has always been intimately involved with his food. This is a dog that once barked at the credenza in the dining room for three hours because a single kibble had fallen behind it!

Given a treat he loved, he’d run around the room throwing it in the air and rolling on it before gobbling it up. He had never refused food before and certainly not three meals in a row. He wasn’t coughing, but he seemed short of breath and his nose was weeping, just like his eyes did.

Veterinary ER

Despite the fact that it was a Saturday night and the nearest ER vet was 25 minutes away, we packed him into the car. I just knew he was sick.

We told the ER vet everything we knew about Kolchak’s mystery illness. We showed her the medication he took and a video of his “coughing fits”.

Kennel Cough

She told us that our dog had Kennel Cough.

Chronic Bronchitis in a Dog: What Started with a Kennel Cough Diagnosis—Kolchak's Story

He had Kennel Cough and as far as she could tell, he’d had a very long time. (The video was from his second or third coughing fit, months ago.)  The medication our vet had prescribed wasn’t an antibiotic like I thought it was. He had actually prescribed a cough suppressant that had likely made the illness worse!

While it’s annoying, coughing serves an important bodily function of trying to expel the bacteria & secretions from your body. 

This illness had gone so long unchecked that ER vet felt it had developed into something worse. Our puppy was very, very sick. I hated subjecting him to anesthetic in that condition, but we needed to know what was wrong, in order to fix it. We did a tracheal wash to get a bacteria culture, lung x-rays to rule out a foreign object as a cause of the infection, airway endoscopy, and a blood gas analysis to determine his oxygenation levels.

The diagnosis? Chronic Bronchitis

Watching my puppy go through all this broke my heart.

He was sick and I could have prevented it. He didn’t have to go through this. If I had trusted my gut, I could have saved my dog a lot of heartache. My little guy needed IV electrolytes and antibiotics before we were allowed to take him home, promising to keep him hydrated with an electrolyte solution and feeding using a nutrient paste. We ran a humidifier with an herbal remedy in it around the clock and I took a lot of time off work, unwilling to leave him alone for even a few hours at a time, terrified that something bad could happen.

I was incredibly grateful when we saw him start to get better.

The underlying respiratory infection required 4 different antibiotics over 50 days!

Combined with steroids, the cough slowly disappeared, though the meds made me very nervous. We sought a holistic vet to help detox his system from these harsh, but necessary drugs.

An eye-opener

As he started to feel better and our crazy puppy returned, I realized just how sick he had been. 

What we thought was him growing up and settling down was really him showing us that he was very ill. How could we have been so blind?

A lasting reminder to trust my gut.

Worse than the all the tests and the weeks of treatment, Kolchak will always bear a permanent reminder of his illness and my failure to protect him: the months of coughing has left him with scar tissue covering a portion of his lungs and chronic bronchitis.

It doesn’t much affect his day to day life, but it means we have to be careful. In the extreme cold or hot, we stay home and limit his time outdoors. We walk the fine line between good exercise and overexertion or he has breathing attacks that break my heart.

Hot, dry summer weather especially seems to irritate his lungs, so we have an air conditioner. Our friends think we’re kidding when we say we run the AC 24/7 for the dog’s sake, but it’s the truth. Living in damp Vancouver, we’re vigilant about controlling molds in our basement, as even a small spot of mold in a window frame is enough to irritate his lungs and set him off on a coughing jag.

Dusting and vacuuming are frequent chores and we wash all of our bedding and the dog bedding at least once a week. We use natural cleaning products and other household items because chemicals can irritate his breathing. It’s a lot of work, but he’s worth it. Thanks to our household management and our amazing holistic vet, these days, we’re surprised if we hear him cough more than once a month. Some months, he doesn’t cough at all.

In closing

I never want one of my dogs to be sick again.

At least not with an illness I could have prevented by being a better-educated pet owner.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have known that giving my dog 4 bordetella vaccinations in 6 months was crazy and dangerous. I would have known that a cough suppressant wasn’t a cure, it was a band-aid to hide the problem.

The gift that Kolchak’s illness gave us was knowledge and a thirst to learn more.  

I want to be an educated owner and the paths this has led me down: canine nutrition, naturopathy & holistic health have forever changed the way we treat our dogs – and our whole family. If I had known then what I know now, this all could have ended very differently.

I knew one thing all along though – trust your gut.

Related articles:
Primer on Kennel Cough

Further reading:
Tracheobronchitis (Bronchitis) in Dogs

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