Nothing seems to throw new dog parents into a state of panic quite like their dog’s first episode of reverse sneezing. This common respiratory event sounds so dramatic and alarming while it’s happening that many people believe their dog to be choking, suffocating, even having a seizure.
The truth is, reverse sneezing (also known as “pharyngeal gag reflex”) is usually completely harmless. Unlike regular sneezing, where air is pushed out forcefully through the nose, reverse sneezing causes air to be sucked very rapidly into the dog’s nose, causing a loud honking noise that sounds something like a deranged, gagging sea lion.
These episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. However, once it’s over, the dog breathes completely normally again and generally acts as if nothing ever happened.
What Causes Reverse Sneezing?
Reverse sneezing is caused by a spasm of the soft palate, the fleshy area at the back of the throat that’s responsible for closing off the airway and nasal passages so that food doesn’t make its way into the nasal cavity while the dog is eating. When this spasm happens, it temporarily narrows the airway, making it more difficult for the dog to take in air through his nose.
Reverse sneezing can be triggered by anything that irritates the throat, such as:
- Pollen or dust
- Cigarette smoke
- Perfumes or environmental irritants like household chemicals or cleaning supplies
- Air fresheners or scented candles
- Post-nasal drip
- A collar that’s too tight
- Very dry air
- Pulling on a leash
- Eating or drinking too quickly
- A sudden change in temperature (such as going outside in very cold weather)
- Anything the dog swallows that becomes stuck in the throat
- Viral infections
- Nasal mites
Certain dogs are more prone to episodes of reverse sneezing than others. Toy and small breeds seem to be the most affected, perhaps due to their smaller windpipes. Brachycephalic breeds with flat faces such as Pugs, Boxers, Boston Terriers, Shih Tzus, and Bulldogs are also more susceptible due to the fact that their longer soft palates have a tendency to periodically get sucked into their throats. However, any dog can experience an episode of reverse sneezing.
What Reverse Sneezing Looks (And Sounds) Like
A dog who is reverse sneezing will usually stand very still with his elbows spread wide apart and his head extended out in front of him. As he tries to take in air, his eyes will bulge slightly, his sides will heave, his lips may suck in, and he’ll begin making a loud snorting, honking sound. It’s this sound that often causes dog parents to panic and rush to the emergency room, only to have the dog completely back to normal by the time they arrive.
Below is a short video of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel reverse sneezing:
How Do You Treat Reverse Sneezing?
The simple answer is, you don’t. Although reverse sneezing can look scary and uncomfortable, in most cases it’s not harmful, doesn’t cause any ill effects, and stops on its own once the dog is able to exhale through his nose.
If your dog experiences an attack of reverse sneezing, there are some things you can try to help shorten the episode. Some of these tricks may work for some dogs but not for others, so you can experiment with what works best for your dog:
- Gently massage your dog’s throat.
- Place your hand over your dog’s nostrils for 2-3 seconds, then remove your hand. This usually causes dogs to swallow, which can help stop the spasm.
- Gently blow into your dog’s nostrils.
- If the episode doesn’t stop quickly, and you trust that you won’t lose a finger, you can try putting your hand in your dog’s mouth and pressing gently on the tongue to help open the mouth wider.
If your dog is prone to reverse sneezing, you may want to consider using a harness instead of a traditional neck collar, which places more pressure on the throat. You can also add moisture to the air in your home by using a vaporizer.
If your dog’s reverse sneezing becomes more frequent, or episodes become longer, talk with your veterinarian to rule out other more serious issues such as a collapsing trachea, an object stuck in the throat or windpipe, polyps in the nasal cavity, kennel cough, nasal mites, or a respiratory infection. And if your dog has any type of nasal discharge or wheezing, don’t wait – call your veterinarian.
A Liveable Condition
Most dogs will have at least one episode of reverse sneezing during their lifetime, and for many dogs, intermittent reverse sneezing attacks (just like regular sneezes) are simply part of life. If your dog reverse sneezes, it’s important to remain calm during these events so that your dog doesn’t get anxious, and remember that the occasional episode is relatively harmless and will eventually stop on its own.
If you suspect that your dog is reverse sneezing, but aren’t sure, try to catch the episode on video and play it for your vet so that he or she can figure out what’s happening – whether it’s truly reverse sneezing, or whether it could be something else.
Does your dog have attacks of reverse sneezing? If so, have you found anything that seems to help? Please share your story with us in the comments below!