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Reverse sneezing in dogs: Should you be worried?

Dog reverse sneezing

Your dog suddenly sits up sits up straight, snorts loudly, and gasps for air as if they’re choking on something. But the episode quickly passes, and they just as suddenly return to normal. What you just witnessed is likely a bout of reverse sneezing. Reverse sneezing is common in dogs and is alarming, but typically harmless. So, what causes reverse sneezing? Should you be concerned? 

Table of contents 

What is reverse sneezing? 

Reverse sneezing, also referred to as paroxysmal (sudden and recurrent attack or spasm) respiration or mechanosensitive aspiration reflex, is a common occurrence in dogs. Effectively the opposite of a normal sneeze, reverse sneezes involve sudden, rapid, and repeated inhalations through the nose, followed by snorting or gagging sounds.  

The first time you see your dog do this, it can be very alarming and may make you think they’re struggling to breathe. However, these involuntary episodes are usually just a way for the dog to attempt to remove foreign particles such as dust, powder or other irritants or allergens from its upper airways. 

Bouts of reverse sneezing in dogs will usually last only about 30 seconds or less, and you will likely see your dog stand still with their elbows spread apart, head and neck extended, and eyes bulging. Their chest and abdomen will also be rapidly moving in and out. 

Reverse sneezes are caused by a muscle spasm at the back of a dog’s mouth where it meets the throat. This temporary narrowing of the opening of the trachea, making it difficult for the dog to inhale. While some dogs may never experience a reverse sneezing fit, it is very common for some dogs to have repeated episodes throughout their lives. 

What causes reverse sneezing in dogs? 

The exact cause of a reverse sneeze is unknown, although possible reasons are similar to those for normal sneezes and coughing: to expel an irritant. Reverse sneezes are just your dog’s body’s way of expelling an irritant that’s slightly further down, at the nasopharynx (area by the soft palate).  

The most common cause of reverse sneezing is an irritation of the soft palate and throat that results in a spasm. Irritants can include: 

  • Household products (perfume, cleaning products, air fresheners)  
  • Pulling on the leash while attached to a collar  
  • Overexcitement   
  • Exercise intolerance 
  • Eating or drinking 
  • Excessive mucus 
  • Dust and other foreign bodies 
  • Elongated soft palate 

There are also many conditions that can exacerbate reverse sneezing, even if they aren’t the original cause of the condition. These can include: 

  • Environmental allergies (pollen, grass, plants, etc.) 
  • Nasal inflammation or tumors 
  • Sinus drainage and post-nasal drip 
  • Nasal mites 
  • Viruses 
  • Collapsing trachea 

Breeds prone to reverse sneezing 

Reverse sneezing can occur in dogs of any age, size, breed, or sex. However, small dogs tend to suffer more frequently from reverse sneezing than larger breeds. 

Additionally, reverse sneezes seem to be more prevalent in brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds and those with narrow nasal passages, such as pugs, Shih Tzus, and bulldogs. This is because these dogs often have an overlong soft palate, which gets in the way of their windpipe.  

Is reverse sneezing dangerous? 

Although it can be alarming to witness a dog having a reverse sneezing episode, occasional episodes of reverse sneezing are normal and are not of concern to the health of the dog. Often much scarier for you as the owner, reverse sneezes are not painful and are not known to be harmful to dogs without any underlying conditions (such as heart disease). Most dogs are completely normal before and after a reverse sneezing episode. 

It is very rare for dogs to develop any complications or suffer any risk during these reverse sneezing attacks. However, reverse sneezing should not be confused with symptoms of a weakening or collapsing trachea, which is a very serious health issue. 

Should I take my dog to the vet? 

When your dog experiences a reverse sneezing bout for the first time, it is generally a good idea to call your veterinarian. Your vet will be able to rule out other causes of abnormal breathing and snorting, such as an upper respiratory tract infection, collapsing trachea, nasal tumors or polyps, foreign bodies in the nasal passages or mouth. If there is a more serious underlying cause of your dog’s reverse sneezing, your veterinarian will be able to prescribe anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, or decongestant medications to help.  

Always let your vet know if your dog is reverse sneezing often enough for it to affect their quality of life, or if they ever faint or collapse after an episode. If your dog has chronic episodes (daily or more often) or other respiratory issues, such as coughing, nasal discharge, or difficulty breathing, or just does not seem to feel well, then it’s important to seek veterinary attention to determine if there are other problems going on. 

How can I help my dog when they are reverse sneezing? 

Most cases of reverse sneezing require no medical treatment. While nothing seems to work consistently to stop a reverse sneeze when your pup is having an episode, there are a variety of different tricks to try to get the episode to stop. Generally, the goal is to stimulate swallowing, which can dislodge or soothe irritation in the throat. 

  • Massage your dog’s throat 
  • Blow softly on your dog’s face 
  • Offer a treat, water, or ice cube 

If your pup seems distressed by these episodes of reverse sneezing, remain calm and attempt to soothe them. Try gently petting them and speaking softly. Be sure to not pet their face or snout, as they need to be able to breathe through the reverse sneezing episode. 

Can I prevent my dog from reverse sneezing? 

It is difficult to prevent reverse sneezing in dogs. The best way to avoid reverse sneezing is to minimize exposure to air irritants and allergens. Consider trying to: 

  • Minimize the use of fragranced candles, scented air fresheners, and odor neutralizers  
  • Eliminate exposure to smoke from tobacco, vaping products, and fireplaces  
  • Discontinue the use of all aerosols  
  • Change your furnace filters regularly and consider using HEPA filters 
  • Dust and vacuum regularly  
  • Wash and clean your dog’s bedding on a regular basis 
  • Regularly bathe your dog and clean their feet with paw wipes during allergy season  
  • Monitor pollen counts and minimize your dog’s time outdoors during allergy season  

You can also use a vaporizer when there is dry air and walk your canine companion with a harness rather than a collar, as reverse sneezing can be associated with pulling on the collar or leash. 

Bottom line 

Although it may seem like an emergency situation the first couple of times your dog reverse sneezes, these episodes are common and usually harmless. Consult your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health issues and monitor for frequency and other symptoms.

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