The strange but usually benign case of reverse sneezing.
Reverse sneezing is a disconcerting event in which a dog makes an alarming respiratory sound, similar to a honking noise. This understandably leads pet owners to think that their dog is having trouble breathing and in grave danger. These episodes are followed by a warp-speed drive to the ER where we generally assess a happy dog wagging his or her tail and giving us the look of, “Not sure what all the fuss is about, but boy, that sure was a fun car ride!”
Reverse sneezing is a condition that usually does not need any treatment. It is called reverse sneezing because it sounds a bit like a dog “inhaling sneezes” or “snorting backwards.” These episodes are short-lived and usually resolved by the time of presentation, leaving us veterinarians to (embarrassingly) try to mimic the noise in the exam room.
What is the cause and what is my pet experiencing when this happens?
The most common cause of reverse sneezing is an irritation of the soft palate and throat that results in a spasm. The dog’s neck will stretch outward and the chest will expand during the spasm as it tries harder to inhale. The trachea narrows during this time, and it’s hard to get the normal amount of air into the lungs. All of these actions together result in the disturbing display.
What are some other causes?
Anything that irritates the throat can cause this spasm, and subsequent reverse sneezing, including:
eating or drinking
pulling on a lead
foreign bodies caught in the throat
perfumes and environmental irritants such as household chemicals
pollen, allergies and post-nasal drip
Further evaluation should be pursued if reverse sneezing becomes a frequent occurrence, as there may be a treatable underlying cause of the episodes, such as mites or allergies. In many cases, however, the cause cannot be identified.
What can I do?
Reverse sneezing itself rarely requires treatment. When the sneezing stops, the spasm is over. If the episode continues beyond a few seconds, sometimes massaging your dog’s throat can help stop the spasm. Also, it is sometimes effective to cover the nostrils for quick moment, which makes the dog swallow and helps to “clear out the irritation.”
Some dogs have these episodes their entire lives; while others develop the condition only as they age. In most dogs, however, the spasm is an occasional and temporary problem that goes away on its own, needing no treatment and leaving the dog with no aftereffects.
Are some dogs more prone to reverse sneezing?
This commonly happens to brachycephalic dogs (flat-faced babies such as Pugs or Boxers) that by nature have elongated soft palates. These breeds will occasionally suck the elongated palate into the throat while inhaling, causing reverse sneezing. Beagles, Yorkies and other small dogs are also particularly prone to it, possibly because they have smaller throats. Cats are very rarely prone to reverse sneezing, and if these signs are noted, veterinary attention is needed.