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What Is Reverse Sneezing and When Should I Be Worried About It?

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Dogs can sneeze both 'normally' and by drawing in air, called reverse sneezing

Dogs can sneeze both 'normally' and by drawing in air, called reverse sneezing

What Is Reverse Sneezing?

If you have never witnessed it before, reverse sneezing can be an alarming sight. The dog will usually stand up, raise their head and make a raspy, gasping noise (some describe it as a honk) as they appear unable to quite catch their breath. They seem to be breathing in quick snorts of air through their nose, and the episode can last a few seconds before the pet returns to normal.

The whole incident can appear distressing and can be frightening to owners, but it is usually over quickly and dogs are generally not bothered by the problem. It can be witnessed in all breeds and sizes of dogs, though it is considered more common in smaller canines and especially those with brachycephalic heads (heads where the nose is very short and squashed against the face) which includes Pugs and French Bulldogs.

Reverse sneezing occurs when something irritates the upper part of the respiratory tract and, just like normal sneezing, reverse sneezing is the body's attempt to rid itself of this irritation. The spasm lasts as long as it takes to clear the issue, which is typically 10–15 seconds. The dog tends to finish by swallowing and then returns to normal.

How Do I Stop My Dog Reverse Sneezing?

Generally, reverse sneezing is over and done with before you can do anything about it (if it lasts longer than a minute or your dog has several bouts in a row, then there may be something else going on and you should consult a vet). Since it is a means of clearing an irritation in the nose, it is best to let it just happen, but some people, understandably, want to help their dog.

If a dog appears distressed by the episode, you can try gently calming them by stroking their neck and soothing them. This is recommended by Dr Karen Becker and other vets as the simplest and safest home treatment.

Other suggestions are to put a hand over the dog's nose for a second to cause them to swallow and hopefully clear the obstruction. Similarly, it is suggested to blow into the dog's nose or open the mouth and press down the tongue to further open the windpipe. However, this can be more distressing to the dog than simply letting the episode pass, and if the dog is suffering repeated or chronic reverse sneezing then that is a sign of a deeper problem affecting your dog's breathing, and adding to that stress by holding their nose or forcing their mouth open is not going to help.

The best way to stop reverse sneezing is to work out what might be causing it in the first place, and correct that (if possible).

Breeds with very short noses are more prone to reverse sneezing

Breeds with very short noses are more prone to reverse sneezing

What Causes Reverse Sneezing?

Reverse sneezing can happen at any time in a dog's life and may be a one-off affair (a bit of dust, grass, etc, getting up the dog's nose) or it might be frequent and caused by something in the environment that needs to be dealt with.

Some causes may be out of your control, for instance, dogs with short muzzles may be prone to reverse sneezing when they encounter sudden changes in temperature, such as going from a warm house to a snowy back garden. Other triggers may be difficult to determine. Dr Karen Becker describes how one of her dogs always reverse sneezes when she is awoken suddenly from a deep sleep. Perhaps this is due to the dog snoring just as it is awoken, or perhaps dogs can suffer a version of the human condition sleep apnea. Dr Becker avoids triggering the problem by being careful not to disturb her dog when sleeping.

Allergies are a common cause of sneezing (reverse or normal) in dogs and can be environmental (pollen, dust mites, etc) or linked to diet. More and more dogs are being diagnosed with allergies, just as there is a noticeable rise in allergies in humans. If there is a seasonal pattern to your dog's reverse sneezing then pollen might be the cause, but a dog may also be allergic to something they are exposed to all the year round, for example, certain chemicals used in the home. Equally they could be allergic to grain in their food, or chicken, white fish, or another ingredient they routinely consume in their diet.

Figuring out what causes a dog's allergies can be a nightmarish journey, but you can experiment with changing diet, or reducing chemical use in the home to see if that makes a difference. You can also give dogs a small dose of anti-histamine, such as Piriton, but please go to your vet first to find out what would be safe for your dog to take.

Another cause of reverse sneezing could be the dog's collar. If your dog pulls into the collar then the pressure on the throat can result in reverse sneezing. Short-nosed breeds, such as pugs, should only be walked on harnesses as collars can compromise their ability to breathe, but any dog that pulls on a collar should be either switched to a head collar (such as the gentle leader) or to a harness to prevent damaging the throat.

Dog's can also choke on harnesses if they pull heavily into them. If they are prone to pulling, a harness with a front clip is better than one that is on the back, as this relieves the pressure pushing into the dog's chest.

Reverse sneezing can occur when a dog pulls on a lead

Reverse sneezing can occur when a dog pulls on a lead

When Is Reverse Sneezing a Sign of Something Serious?

While the majority of episodes of reverse sneezing are nothing to worry about, they can be an indication of a serious health problem if the episodes become chronic, last over a minute, come in bouts where the dog stops and starts reverse sneezing for several minutes, or begin in a dog that has never previously suffered from them.

Reverse sneezing tells you that something has irritated the upper respiratory tract, this might just be dust, but it could be one of the following:

  • Nasal mites
  • A foreign object in the nose that the dog can't clear
  • Polyps or tumours in the nose
  • Kennel cough
  • A respiratory infection (eg. pneumonia)
  • Inflammation
  • Acid reflux (usually chronic and a symptom of a further problem such as a stomach ulcer or pancreatitis)
  • Collapsing trachea

Unfortunately, people do not always take reverse sneezing as a symptom of something more serious, especially in breeds with short noses, where it is considered common and a result of their face type.

If your dog is having problems with reverse sneezing try to film him having an episode, record how long the sneezing lasts, how frequently it occurs and when. Presenting this to your vet will help them to determine what might be causing the problem and whether it needs treatment.

This dog's reverse sneezing was caused by inflammation of the throat and tonsils as a result of chronic acid reflux. He had to have his tonsils removed.

This dog's reverse sneezing was caused by inflammation of the throat and tonsils as a result of chronic acid reflux. He had to have his tonsils removed.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2019 Sophie Jackson