Bordetella Bronchiseptica: Is YOUR Cattery at Risk?

Copyright © 1996 Jennifer Reding,

Bordetella? Isn't that a DOG disease? Why would I worry about THAT?

Yes, Bordetella Bronchiseptica is more commonly known as Kennel Cough, affecting dogs who spend time in crowded conditions (like a kennel). It causes a whooping like cough, with little or no additional signs. Occasionally, an untreated dog will suddenly develop acute pneumonia, and will die unless treated quickly.

More significantly, Bordetella has been isolated in numerous other mammalian species, such as pigs, horses, sheep, goats, monkeys and humans. It has not, however, been previously recognized in cats, and an otherwise unenlightened veterinarian will look at you oddly if you request a Bordetella culture.

Bordetella has been affecting numerous catteries from coast to coast (I have seen reports from Washington, California, Texas, and various east coast states). It has been a serious problem, with high mortality, and surprising tenacity. A breeder I spoke to here in the San Francisco Bay Area lost 28 kittens in 18 months before it was finally identified at UC Davis and properly treated. She has begun vaccinating, and has had healthy kittens since.

One good thing, however--Bordetella is a bacteria, NOT a virus, and can be eliminated with good husbandry and appropriate antibiotics!

How do know I have it?

Symptoms in healthy adult cats can range from none to moderate, usually manifesting as a dry, "hairball like" cough, which may or may not be preceded by vomiting. In the more severely affected kittens, the cough can become progressively more "wet" sounding, exhibiting a "barking" or "whooping" type cough, with the cat struggling to catch it's breath.

Pneumonia can develop rapidly, with the cat seeming fine one minute, and near death 12 hours later.

Young kittens are the hardest hit. They can seem fine when you go to bed, and be dead from pneumonia the next morning. A small sniffle, cough, or runny eye can progress rapidly in 12 hours to a dead kitten. Mortality is nearly 100% in young (under 6 week old) kittens. Older kittens can have copious nasal discharge, be unable to smell or eat, but seem fine otherwise. Mortality among older kittens is closer to 50%.

The most dangerous thing about this disease is the asymptomatic cat! Cats that show no symptoms, and appear healthy even after veterinary examination, have been known to have walking pneumonia!

Diagnosis is made by your veterinarian via a tracheal wash and a culture and sensitivity. Your vet must submit the sample as "canine"--labs have different charts for different species, and Bordetella does not appear on the feline chart!

Bordetella can appear by itself or in conjunction with other respiratory viruses, so individual catteries may experience varying symptoms. It seems to be found most often in conjunction with feline Herpes virus (Rhinotracheitus), with an infection by one weakening the immune system in invitation for the other.

How do I treat this?

Bordetella is resistant to Amoxicillin, but seems to be sensitive to just about every other antibiotic. The most commonly used are Clavamox and Baytril, either in conjunction, or alternating weeks. The most important thing--treatment must be continued for at least 14 days! Some veterinarians recommend a 21 day treatment period.

Other drugs used: Chloromycetin, Kanamycin, Gentamicin (2mg/lb up to 4 weeks old, 4mg/lb after), Tetracycline, Cephalasporine (at 4x the normal dose), Doxycycline (50mg daily per adult cat), Antirobe, Cephalothin, Trimeth-sulfa, Primaxin (the most effective, but also the most expensive. Dose is given 3x/day by IM injection). A caution--Gentamicin should be used judiciously in kittens, because it can cause permanent kidney damage in some cats.

Another point--if one cat in the household has been diagnosed, all cats have been exposed and must be treated for the full 14-21 days, or you will experience repeated outbreaks of more and more resistant strains.

Even after a full scale treatment, breeders have reported re-breaks that required isolation and additional treatment.

Can I vaccinate for it?

Yes! The canine vaccines, both the killed injectable and the intra-nasal modified live have been successfully used.

For unaffected catteries: Killed injectable to all cats (every 6 months), and queens 3 weeks before breeding. Intra-nasal MLV to kittens at 6 and 9 weeks.

For affected catteries: Killed injectable to all cats, queens 3 weeks before breeding, at 21 days of pregnancy, and 24 hours post birthing. Intra-nasal MLV to kittens at 10 days (or when eyes open), 3, 6, and 9 weeks. Queens should follow the same regimen as the kittens.

In addition, since the Herpes virus is so opportunistic in conjunction with this infection, vaccination of all cats with a MLV (modified live) 3 or 4-way Flu vaccine is highly recommended for all those catteries that previously only used killed. The killed vaccine is simply not effective enough when challenged with both diseases. Affected catteries should also vaccinate kittens with a MLV intra-nasal 2 or 3-way Flu vaccine at 8, 10, and 12 weeks.

Bordetella vaccines successfully used: Killed-Coughgard-B, Bio-Cor. MLV--Ft. Dodge vaccine (don't know name), IntraTrac II ADT or Bronchi-shield II (the last two contain vaccine for canine parainfluenza. This has not reported to give any problems), and the SmithKlineBeecham vaccine.

There has been some indication on the Internet regarding an unnamed company exploring the possibility of marketing a feline Bordetella vaccine. There is no solid evidence at this time, and it will, at minimum, be awhile before one is made available to the public. We hope this will be more successful than the FIP "vaccine"!


Anne Lawrence, Bheyzavi Birmans

Anna Sadler, Brannaway Persians

Pat Decano, Casa Decano Cattery

Lorraine Shelton, Featherland Persians

Helen Dohrmann, Firerose Maine Coons

N. Pederson, DVM. Feline Husbandry. Diseases and Management in the Multiple-Cat Environment. American Veterinary Publications, 233-4, 1991.

Feline bordetellosis: challenge and vaccine studies. Abstract, Vet Record, Sep 1993, 11;133(11):260-3.