Reverse sneezing in dogs can be startling to owners at first, but fortunately, there's usually no need to worry when it happens. This common occurrence is sometimes misunderstood. Reverse sneezing sounds similar to a dog snorting, wheezing, huffing, or struggling to breathe, and it typically only lasts a few seconds (but may continue for a minute or two) before resolving on its own. The strange rapid breathing sound can also be accompanied by a spasm to the head, neck, and chest that appears like a type of convulsion. While a specific cause for reverse sneezing is not known, it is typically triggered by irritation to the nose, sinuses, or back of the throat, most commonly affecting dogs with especially long or short noses. In addition to knowing the symptoms, owners can become familiar with a few steps to help minimize their dog's reverse sneezing episodes.
What Is Reverse Sneezing?
Reverse sneezing is a brief respiratory event that causes a dog to snort, wheeze, or huff with a stretched neck, puffed-up chest, or bobbing head (sometimes referred to as inspiratory paroxysmal respiration or pharyngeal gag reflex). Reverse sneezing occurs as a response to a narrowed or irritated airway around the pharynx and soft palate of a dog's throat. An involuntary spasm causes extension of the neck and expansion of the chest, which narrows the trachea. For a moment, the dog is unable to take in air. The resulting breath pattern resembles a backward sneeze when the dog forcefully inhales rather than exhaling like a normal sneeze.
Once the spasms end, the dog resumes normal breathing. Episodes may appear serious, however, they are actually not harmful. At first, it may seem like your dog is experiencing respiratory distress. Reverse sneezing often happens several times in a row. Unless episodes are prolonged or the dog is experiencing other symptoms, reverse sneezing is no more serious than regular sneezing.
Symptoms of Reverse Sneezing
Reverse sneezing is characterized by a set of symptoms that may occur at the same time or with one symptom following another. Owners can identify these episodes by looking for the following signs:
Many dogs have episodes of reverse sneezing that include symptoms like snorting, wheezing, or huffing, but the sneeze may also resemble a honking sound. These breaths are inhaled through the nose in rapid succession and are longer than normal breaths or sneezes. Dogs often extend their heads and necks out. Your dog might also puff out its chest or bob its head until the episode resolves.
It's also common for a reverse sneeze to sound like your dog has something lodged in its nose or throat. Owners should distinguish the sound of reverse sneezes from actual foreign objects inside the nose or throat, which can include additional symptoms like coughing, choking, or gagging.
Causes of Reverse Sneezing in Dogs
There are several potential causes of reverse sneezing in dogs. Some dogs may naturally have more narrow airways than others. Environmental factors often trigger the episodes, along with trauma to the neck, certain dog behaviors, and medical issues. The following causes can occur:
- Environmental inhalants: Pollen, fragrances, chemicals, and smoke often cause airway irritation. Inhalation of grass awns may also cause inflammation of the airway.
- Pulling on the leash: Leash-pulling may irritate the throat and trachea. Switching to a harness can help limit reverse sneezing.
- Eating and drinking: Reverse sneezing can occur when a dog eats or drinks too quickly.
- Infection: Upper respiratory infections or post-nasal drip may cause irritation to the soft palate.
- Short noses: Dogs with brachycephalic syndrome usually have elongated soft palates that cause reverse sneezing. This condition commonly affects short-nosed dog breeds like bulldogs and pugs.
- Long noses: Dogs with thin, elongated noses may also have more narrow nasal passages than others, which can lead to more frequent episodes of reverse sneezing.
- Breed size: Small dogs can be more likely to experience reverse sneezing because their airways are often narrow.
- Trauma: Injuries to the neck and airway may cause reverse sneezing. This may occur after a dog fight.
- Dental problems: Unhealthy teeth may lead to inflammation of the airway or a discharge that irritates the throat.
- Tumors: Canine tumors in or near the airway may cause reverse sneezing.
- Nasal mites: These mites cause airway irritation. This condition is more common in stray dogs and wild canines than in pet dogs.
Diagnosing Reverse Sneezing in Dogs
Contact your veterinarian if your dog's reverse sneezing is frequent, prolonged, or accompanied by other signs of illness such as nasal discharge or bleeding, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. Your veterinarian will examine your dog and possibly recommend additional testing to determine the source of the reverse sneezing.
Blood tests, upper airway exams, rhinoscopy, tracheoscopy, and diagnostic imaging may be performed. Your dog's blood count and chemistry can help the veterinarian assess organ function, blood cells, electrolyte levels, and overall health.
Other methods of veterinary testing may require sedation. During an upper airway exam, your veterinarian can examine the dog's airway using a tool with a light called a laryngoscope. Small cameras may also be necessary; a rhinoscopy and/or tracheoscopy allows the vet to visualize the area through a mechanical tube with a tiny camera through the airway (biopsy samples can be collected at this time).
Radiographs (X-rays) may be performed while the dog is awake or sedated, while other diagnostic imaging including CT scans and MRIs require sedation to assess the structure of the dog's airway.
Your vet will recommend the next step for your dog based on the diagnostic results. Treatments vary depending on the underlying cause of the reverse sneezing and accompanying signs.
Oral antibiotic medications are often needed to treat infections. Medications for irritation may include antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs, or decongestants. Surgery may be needed if there is a tumor or structural abnormality found in or near the airway.
During an episode, stay calm and keep an eye on your dog. When in doubt, call your veterinarian with questions or concerns. Reverse sneezing is usually self-limiting and requires no interaction from owners, but there are a few steps you can take to help minimize your dog's symptoms when it occurs.
You may be able to stop or slow down your dog's reverse sneezing if the episode continues for more than a few seconds. Gently hold your hand over your dog's nostrils while lightly massaging the neck near the throat for a few seconds. This may cause your dog to swallow, which can help relax the muscles. Do not continue if your dog resists handling or seems to have trouble breathing.
Prognosis for Dogs With Reverse Sneezing
Fortunately, reverse sneezing is usually nothing to worry about, and it's rare for dogs to have complications from these episodes. After your veterinarian has ruled out other health problems like upper respiratory tract infections, collapsing trachea, nasal tumors, or polyps, they can provide an accurate prognosis for your dog. Dogs with normal episodes of reverse sneezing should have no ill effects, but other medical issues may require additional treatment.
How to Prevent Reverse Sneezing
Reverse sneezing is a common occurrence in the canine world, so owners may not always be able to prevent it from happening. However, it is possible to determine your dog's triggers and limit episodes in the future.
Remove Household Irritants
If you suspect the reverse sneezing was caused by an inhaled irritant in your home, bring your dog outside and air out your home. Limit the use of spray cleaners, smoke, fragrances, and other airborne irritants inside the house when your dog is in the same room.
Avoid Excessive Pollen
High-pollen seasons can cause more frequent episodes of reverse sneezing. Help minimize your dog's discomfort by avoiding spending too much time outdoors during these times if your dog seems sensitive to the air.
Switch to a Harness
Use a harness rather than a neck collar during walks if your dog often pulls on the leash and experiences reverse sneezing. Harnesses change the pressure on your dog from being focused entirely on the neck to distributing it around the chest and body.
Use Slow-Feeder Bowls
Switch to slow-feeding dog bowls if your dog reverse sneezes after meals. Keep water bowls shallow if your dog drinks too fast, but be sure to fill them frequently to prevent dehydration. Some slow-drinking water bowls also exist if your dog exercises often and needs to have water available at all times.