Ask the Vet: Why Do Dogs Reverse Sneeze?

Dogs reverse sneeze because their bodies are reacting to something in their environment. Reverse sneezing in dogs is something dog owners may not fully understand, causing them to sometimes panic and perhaps even make an emergency phone call to the vet. "Help, my dog is choking, he's acting as if there is something stuck in his throat! It's the oddest sound,I never heard my dog doing that before, can I take him in?"

"Fortunately, as scary as it sounds, reverse sneezing in dogs is rather short-lived and by the time the dog is taken to the vet, the episode is gone, but what causes reverse sneezing in dogs, and most of all, how can it be prevented? Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec answers these important questions about reverse sneezing in dogs.

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Understanding Reverse Sneezing in Dogs 

Every living cell in your dog’s body needs a constant supply of oxygen to survive. Cells must also dispose of the metabolic waste product carbon dioxide. The job of the respiratory system, along with the circulatory system, is to deliver oxygen from the air inhaled into the lungs to all the body cells, and to remove carbon dioxide through the lungs.

The respiratory system is made of the nasal passages, the pharynx (throat), the larynx (voice box), the trachea and the lungs. Unfortunately, problems may arise anywhere along the respiratory tract. Virtually all respiratory disorders cause changes in an affected dog’s breathing pattern. Unusual breathing is often the first sign of a respiratory problem and therefore may be an important diagnostic clue.

Your canine can produce a plethora of respiratory sounds – and some are more concerning than others. However, one of the probably most disturbing sounds, when viewed from the owner’s point of view, is the sound of reverse sneezing. This is because most owners find it hard to differentiate between reverse sneezing and choking.

What is reverse sneezing? Reverse sneezing is a spasmodic response to irritation or inflammation in the nasal and pharyngeal passages or sinuses. It manifests with suddenly-occurring, fast and repeated inhalations of air that produce a honking, snorting or gagging sound.

As the name itself suggest, reverse sneezing is the opposite process of sneezing. Namely, during a normal sneeze, the air is pushed out through the nose. During a reverse sneeze, the air is rapidly pulled into the nose.

During a reverse sneezing episode, the affected dog usually stands still and straight and with its eyes wide opened. For a first-time viewer, an episode can be quite terrifying. Fortunately, the condition is self-limiting and resolves on its own. Most episodes of reverse sneezing last for 5 to 20 seconds. Rarely, they can last for up to 1 or even 2 minutes.

Why Do Dogs Reverse Sneeze? 

It is postulated that reverse sneezing is caused by irritants such as nasal mites, excessive nasal secretions, foreign bodies like seeds, grasses, pollen, dust, mites, smoke, intensive odors, allergies, masses in the breathing passages and elongated soft palate. Getting overly excited is another common trigger of reverse sneezing.

Dogs with long noses (narrow nasal passages) are at higher risk of developing reverse sneezing episodes. The condition is particularly common among toy breeds, mostly Yorkshire Terriers.

As usual, the diagnosis is based on two important factors – medical history and clinical signs. Before making the final diagnosis, the vet should perform additional tests (blood analysis, allergy tests and radiography) to rule out other probable causes such as collapsing tumors, nasal tumors or polyps, foreign bodies in the respiratory passages and an upper respiratory tract infection.

How can reverse sneezing be treated? Since it is a natural phenomenon, in most cases, reverse sneezing should be left alone. However, if the causative agent is a particular irritant, and that irritant is confirmed, the vet may recommend using certain medications.

For example, if the cause is an allergen, an antihistamine will be prescribed. If the cause is inflammation, an anti-inflammatory will be prescribed. The vet may also suggest using a decongestant to clear the breathing passages and ease the breathing process. If mechanical pressure is the culprit, the vet will advise you to switch to a different leash and collar.

Now That You Know..

  First of all, it should be well noted that in most cases letting an episode of reverse sneezing pass on its own is perfectly normal and safe. However, there are simple measures that can shorten the duration of an episode and make your dog comfortable. The most common and effective measures include:

  • Massaging the throat in a gentle manner – most reverse sneezing episodes are caused by irritation in the breathing passages and therefore rubbing your fingers up and down your dog’s throat can relieve the irritation and hopefully end the episode.
  • Carrying the dog outside to fresh air – this is particularly helpful is the cause is irritants such as dust and cigarette smoke. More often than not, during an episode, dogs are reluctant to move. Therefore, you must calmly and carefully pick up your dog and carry it outside.
  • Offering treats – the goal is to encourage your dog to swallow. The simple act of swallowing usually ends an episode by helping the dog realign the back of its throat.
  • Blowing small puffs of air directly into the dog’s face – this can stop the cycle of repetitive inhalations that occur during reverse breathing. The blowing should be calm and gentle and while blowing, make sure you are around 15 cm apart from your dog’s face. Use caution as some dogs hate having air blown in their face.
  • Pinching the nose shut for 1 second – this makes the dog involuntarily swallow and consequently either disrupt the episode or soothe the irritation that caused it. To avoid unnecessary panicking and lashing out, the pinch should be gentle and it should not last for more than 1 second.
  • Pressing the tongue down in the bottom of the mouth – this procedure is helpful because it opens the breathing passage thus ending the episode. It goes without saying that this measure should be taken only if sure your dog will not bite you.

The Bottom Line 

This curious condition, also known as laryngospasm, is fairly common in small breeds, particularly Yorkshire Terriers. The dog snorts inward in a sometimes violent paroxysm that may last for up to a minute.

The exact cause of reverse sneezing is unknown. The problem often occurs whenever a dog becomes excited – such as when the owner returns home. Episodes of reverse sneezing may be frequent, but they are never prolonged. After an episode, the dog behaves completely normally.

No treatment is usually needed, although massaging from the larynx forward may shorten an episode. If your do has an attack of reverse sneezing and collapses, see your vet to ensure that there is not a foreign object obstructing the larynx.

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