A pet owner is desperate to find out what her dog’s problem is. The owner has been awakened in the middle of the night, on more than one occasion, to the sounds of what seem to be her little Boston terrier struggling for breath.
These episodes, though usually short-lived, become more scary to the owner each time they occur. Massaging her pet’s throat seems to help, but she would like to understand why her pet does this over and over again.
It turns out that in this case, it’s “reverse sneezing.” This is usually harmless, even if it is somewhat stressful to a pet (and the pet owner).
Pets Adviser reader Winnie Nepgen has her own word for reverse sneezing. She calls it “fnirking.” She tells us her new word “gave the vet a giggle the first time he heard me call it that, but now he knows exactly what I mean! My dogs fnirk from time to time.”
Characterized by rapid inhalations through the nose, along with gagging or snorting noises, reverse sneezing in dogs normally lasts just a few seconds. But it can seem much longer to someone who doesn’t know what’s going on.
Reverse Sneezing in Dogs
Called reverse sneezing because it sounds like the dog is snorting backward or inhaling sneezes, this condition usually requires no treatment.
Many dogs have these episodes all their lives, while some develop it only in their senior years.
During a reverse sneeze — sometimes also called pharyngeal gag reflex, paroxysmal respiration or mechanosensitive aspiration reflex — a dog will stretch his neck and make gasping sounds. A honking noise may come out, as if he cannot catch his breath.
According to Dr. Mark Hiebert, medical director of the VCA TLC Animal Hospital in Los Angeles, depending on where the irritation occurs in their noses, dogs may sneeze normally or have a reverse sneeze. Both sneeze types are reflexes. A regular sneeze is a rapid expulsion of air through the nostrils, while a reverse sneeze is a rapid inhalation of air through the nostrils.
Understanding a reverse sneeze and being aware of probable causes will help you (and, by extension, your pet) remain calm.
When You Should Seek Help
There are certain signs to watch for that may indicate something is going on that is more serious than just simply reverse sneezing. Any of the following should be checked by your veterinarian:
- Discharge from the nose
- Bloody nose
- Any unusual appearances around your pet’s nose area
- Loss of appetite or energy
If your dog appears to be choking or has passed out, this is a serious medical emergency!
Certain Dogs Are More at Risk
You know that fleshy tissue on the roof of the mouth? It’s called a soft palate. Shih tzus, boxers and other flat-nosed (brachycephalic) dogs have a soft palate that is stretched out more. Therefore, those breeds are more prone to reverse sneezing. Upon inhaling, those dogs can pull the palate into the throat.
Here’s a short list of brachycephalic dog breeds:
- American cocker spaniel
- Boston terrier
- Brussels griffon
- Cavalier King Charles spaniel
- Cane corso
- Chow chow
- Dogue de Bordeaux
- English toy spaniel
- Japanese chin
- Lhasa apso
- Neapolitan mastiff
- Presa canario
- Shih tzu
- Tibetan spaniel
Smaller breeds of dogs are also more likely to experience reverse sneezing because their throats are smaller.
Is It an Asthma Attack?
Sometimes a reverse sneeze is so loud, a dog owner may believe his pet is experiencing an asthma attack, but that should rarely be a concern — dogs do not generally have asthma attacks.
Thus, it is most likely to be nothing more than a little backward sneeze, which, again, in most cases is perfectly normal.
Check out this video from Greg Martinez, DVM, who examined a pug named Malachi, who was experiencing reverse sneezing:
What Causes Reverse Sneezing in Dogs?
Dr. Richard Joseph, DVM, DACVIM, medical director of New York’s Animal Specialty Center, reminds us that repetitive reverse sneezing can be brought about by irritation of the nasal passages due to allergic reactions or chemical irritants.
While most dogs do not need medication, your veterinarian may prescribe an antihistamine (such as Benadryl, Claritin, Zertec or Allegra) or steroids (a shot of cortisone) if the problem is serious or allergy-related.
Even a blade of grass or other foreign matter can get stuck in the back of your pet’s nasal area, so if you feel unsure about the reason behind your pet’s sneezy episodes, talk it over with your veterinarian. Chances are, those seemingly frantic “choo-ahs” (“ah-choo” in reverse) are Mr. Sneezy’s way of clearing his head.
Is There Anything You Can Do?
Sure, you can be of some help to your pet when he’s experiencing one of these reverse sneezes. Calmly blow into his nose, give him a good drink of water and gently massage his throat.
Just as with humans, the sneezing should soon go away on its own.
- VCA Animal Hospitals: Brachycephalic airway syndrome in dogs
- Tom Day, DVM, MS, DACVA, DAVCECC: Reverse sneezing in dogs
- Vetstreet: What’s the deal with my dog’s weird reverse sneezes?