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What is reverse sneezing in dogs?

You’ve probably heard your dog make an unholy gasping sound that makes you think they are struggling to breathe, having a seizure, or undergoing an exorcism. But, fear not—you’re likely hearing them reverse sneeze, which isn’t actually a sneeze at all. Let’s take a closer look at a reverse sneeze in dogs, and the cause of that horrible noise.

What is a reverse sneeze in dogs?

Many dogs experience a condition called paroxysmal respiration or pharyngeal gag reflex, more commonly known as reverse sneezing. Not a sneeze at all, reverse sneezing is a spasm that transpires when the throat and soft palate are irritated. Regular sneezing occurs when the air is rapidly pushed out the nose, whereas during a reverse sneeze, a dog pulls air into the nose. Reverse sneezing sounds alarming, but the condition is usually not serious and rarely requires treatment.

How to identify a reverse sneeze in dogs

When a dog is experiencing a reverse sneezing episode, they will typically stand, extend their head and neck, pull their lips back, and inhale forcefully with a snorting noise that may sound like they’re inhaling a sneeze. Dogs will often turn out their elbows as they brace their bodies from the force of sneezing, and their eyes may bulge. The dog’s trachea will become narrow, and they will struggle to pull a standard amount of oxygen into their lungs, forcing their chest to expand more fully.

Dogs often appear normal immediately before and after a reverse-sneezing episode, and they do not lose consciousness or collapse. Episodes typically end on their own without causing any harm, and require no treatment or after-care.

When you first see your dog undergo reverse sneezing, you likely will be startled, and you may panic, believing your beloved pet is experiencing a seizure, is choking, or is struggling to breathe. But, while these episodes can be terrifying, they are short-lived, and generally end in a few seconds to under two minutes.

Causes of reverse sneezing in dogs

Reverse sneezing, which is typically a normal condition in dogs, is the body’s way of expelling an irritant. Like regular sneezing, reverse sneezing works to get rid of a foreign substance bothering the body. When your puppy is sniffing around, exploring new things, and snorts up a nose-full of dirt, their nasal passages become irritated and they sneeze to dislodge the dirt. An irritation in the nasopharynx, the area behind the nasal cavities and above the soft palate, can cause the dog to reverse sneeze. Any irritation to the nose, sinuses, or back of the throat can trigger a reverse-sneezing episode. Pulling hard on the leash, excitement, drinking or eating too quickly, or exercise intolerance also can cause your dog to reverse sneeze.

Common irritants that can create a reverse sneeze include dust, pollen, grass awns, mites, perfumes, household chemicals, allergies, post-nasal drip, and nasal inflammation. Health conditions that can lead to reverse sneezing can include an infection, mass, virus, or anatomical abnormality.

While most dogs can expel the bothersome irritant, veterinary aid is necessary if your pet experiences prolonged or frequent episodes of reverse sneezing, as a mass or anatomical malformation may be interfering with normal breathing.

How to treat reverse sneezing in dogs

Most reverse sneezing episodes are mild and infrequent, creating no health issues in dogs. To try to help shorten an episode, you can softly blow in your dog’s face, gently massage their throat, or hold her nostrils closed for a few seconds, as this will force them to swallow, which can clear the irritant.

If your dog’s reverse-sneezing episodes appear particularly harsh and severe, seek your veterinarian’s help. Capturing the episode on film would be helpful, but can be a challenge. During your pet’s visit, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam to search for medical issues that could be causing your dog’s sneezing, and will rule out other causes for abnormal breathing, such as an upper respiratory tract infection, collapsing trachea, nasal polyps or masses, or foreign objects stuck in the nasal passages. Depending on your pet’s medical history and clinical signs, your veterinarian may recommend blood work, X-rays, or allergy tests to rule out possible causes.

If your pet is experiencing excessive reverse-sneezing episodes, or if you think their sneezing may be abnormal, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to discover the underlying issue.