‘Reverse sneezing’ sounds as if it is going to be quite a comical thing but when you hear a dog do one, it can be a bit alarming! This canine behavior may be something that you have not come across before. New owners can confuse it for something more serious like choking, gagging, or a seizure. So, let’s get you up to speed with everything you need to know about the causes and how to stop reverse sneezing in dogs.
What Is a Reverse Sneeze in a Dog?
The medical name for reverse sneezing is paroxysmal respiration and it is a common thing to see in dogs. It seems to be fairly unique to canines and is only rarely seen in cats. Reverse sneezes usually last for less than 30 seconds. The exact mechanism is not completely understood but it is thought to be a spasm of the muscles at the back of a dog’s mouth – where it meets the throat. Instead of forcing air out (as in a regular sneeze), the air is sucked in.
Some dogs never reverse sneeze but those that do seem to have repeated episodes throughout their life.
What Causes Reverse Sneezing?
Reverse sneezes are most probably a reaction to something that irritates the nasal passages, the sinuses, or the pharyngeal area (the tube that leads from the back of the nose to the top of the windpipe).
Any small particles or inflammation (swelling) can cause irritation of the sensitive tissue in these areas of your dog’s body. The reverse sneeze is how the body tries to get rid of whatever is causing the irritation.
What Does a Reverse Sneeze Look and Sound Like?
A dog having a reverse sneeze will stop what they are doing and stand still. Then they extend their head forward and make a loud snorting sound. It is not usually a single event. Instead, there is a rapid stream of sharp inhalations (sniffing inwards) through the nose followed by a snort that sounds a bit like gagging.
Because it is quite unusual, loud, and ongoing it can be alarming and certainly gains your attention! It does not sound the same as choking or gagging or a tracheal collapse (which has a specific type of honking sound). It is not the same as asthma (which has labored breathing) or a cough.
We recommend you watch some videos of dogs reverse sneezing so that you can become confident in recognizing it.
Common Reverse Sneezing Triggers
To find out how to stop reverse sneezing in dogs, it’s useful to identify what is causing it. Here are some of the most likely culprits.
- Allergens. These are substances in the air that dogs inhaul into their nasal passages and trigger an allergic reaction. Dogs can be allergic to pollen much like humans. This would cause seasonal reverse sneezing. Your vet may be able to help with anti-allergy medication.
- Nasal mites. These are tiny insects that live in a dog’s nasal passages and can also cause nasal discharge and coughing. They are passed from one dog to another. Your vet can provide treatment for these.
- Household products. We use a lot of aerosols around our houses and they leave tiny particles in the air which can be inhaled by dogs. Examples include cleaning products, air fresheners and perfumes. You may want to limit your use of these products.
- Eating and drinking. Sometimes eating or drinking too quickly can trigger reverse sneezing. Your dog may have accidentally snorted up some food or water into its nasal passage. It is unusual for food allergies to cause this but if your vet suspects that your dog has a food allergy, they may recommend a transition to a special diet for dogs with food allergies.
- Constriction caused by a collar. Pulling on the leash is a common but annoying habit in many dogs. It can be tackled with a training regime, but you could also try head halters and no-pull harnesses.
- Overexcitement. It’s not clear exactly why this leads to reverse sneezing in some dogs but it may be due to breathing quickly and panting a lot! It’s best to try to avoid over-excitement in dogs by distracting their attention with some interactive toys. You could also try some calming treats.
- Exercise intolerance. Heavy exercise can also trigger a fit of reverse sneezing. This is probably for the same reasons as overexcitement. The heightened state may make muscles more prone to going into spasm.
- Foreign bodies. Any foreign body from the environment or any sort of growth (tumors) in the nasal passages could cause reverse sneezing.
Which Dogs Have Reverse Sneezes?
All dogs can have a reverse sneeze. However, if you look at the list of triggers above, there are clearly some dogs that are more likely to experience the triggers. These include dogs with allergies and those who tend to get over-excited.
However, there is another group of dogs that experience reverse sneezes more than others and these are the brachycephalic breeds. These dogs have shorter noses and flat faces and the anatomy of their nasal cavities is quite unusual. If you have a Pug or a French Bulldog you may have witnessed quite a few reverse sneezes!
Are Reverse Sneezes Dangerous for Dogs?
There is no evidence that reverse sneezes are harmful, painful, or uncomfortable for dogs. They may find them a bit annoying if the reverse sneezing fit is prolonged. The majority of dogs are perfectly fine after the reverse sneeze and just get on with what they were doing before.
You should only be concerned if the reverse sneeze is a sign that something more serious is wrong with your pooch. If this is the case, you would usually see some other symptoms too such as nasal discharge and signs that your dog is uncomfortable. However, reverse sneezes that are ongoing, are causing distress, or that seem to be related to allergies should be checked out by your vet.
Nasal mites are one of the few causes of reverse sneezes that can be transmitted from one dog to another – usually by direct contact. So, if one of your dogs starts reverse sneezing and then another of your dogs starts a few days later, you need to see your vet to rule out nasal mites.
Getting Treatment for Reverse Sneezes
Your vet will be able to confirm that your dog’s symptom is indeed a reverse sneeze and not another respiratory condition such as a chest infection or a blockage of the airway.
Vets are the experts on how to stop reverse sneezing in dogs and can give you the best advice. In particular, they can check for nasal mites and polyps by looking up your dog’s nose with a special light.
For chronic, allergy-related sneezing, they may prescribe your dog an antihistamine to calm down the allergic reaction.
What to Do When Your Dog Reverse Sneezes
Don’t panic. If you stay calm, your pooch will stay calm and it will soon pass. Dogs are highly skilled at picking up on human emotion and they will sense that you are stressing. You can expect it to last for between 5 and 20 seconds although some go on for up to 2 minutes.
Whilst you are waiting for it to pass, make a mental note of what your dog was doing just before it started. This may help you to identify what is causing it. Were they excited, exercising or pulling on the leash? Was the air particularly cold or full of pollen or dust?
If it is happening more often than you think it should or is lasting a long time, grab your smartphone and record it. A video is much more informative for your vet than a verbal description.
How You Can Stop Reverse Sneezes
Occasional bouts of reverse sneezing are not harmful and you don’t have to stop them if you don’t want to. Just wait for them to pass. However, if you do want to shorten the duration of a reverse sneezing fit, here are some things that you can try.
Many episodes of reverse sneezing are triggered by irritation of the throat. So, you can try gently massaging your dog’s throat by rubbing the backs of your fingers up and down the front part of their neck. At the same time, talk in a calm, quiet and soothing voice.
Blowing in Their Face
During a fit of reverse sneezing, your dog’s throat and nose muscles may have gone into spasm. You can disrupt the repeated contractions by blowing gently in your dog’s face. Place your mouth around 6 inches from your dog’s face and blow a few small puffs in the direction of their nose. This needs to be a calm and gentle action. If you blow too hard you will startle your dog and could make them panic.
Pinching Their Nose
Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch your dog’s nose for one second. This makes them swallow which often soothes the throat irritation. Do not squeeze too hard, only a gentle pinch is needed. Never pinch for more than a second as this can make a dog panic.
Press Down Their Tongue
You can only do this with dogs that you are sure will not bite you! Also, your dog’s mouth needs to be partially open so that you can reach their tongue. Using two fingers, press down gently on the front half of the tongue. This helps to open up the top of the windpipe and stop the spasms. You need to do this in a very calm and controlled way.
Get Some Fresh Air
Sometimes simply taking your dog outside is enough to stop it. The fresh air will clear away the smoke or dust that is causing the irritation. The problem is that most dogs don’t like to move when they are having a sneezing fit. So, you will probably have to pick them up and carry them – provided you are physically able to do that. This obviously isn’t possible for giant breeds!
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