Should I Worry if My Dog “Reverse Sneezes”?
“Reverse sneezing”—also known as the pharyngeal gag reflex—is when a dog makes noises that sound as if he can’t get enough air. It can be disconcerting and worrisome, even causing some owners to rush to emergency clinics in the middle of the night.
So, how can you tell if your pet is reverse sneezing? Some people describe it as wheezing or gasping for air. It gets its name because it seems as if the dog is inhaling, as opposed to exhaling, sneezes.
Before you worry too much, let me explain further: Reverse sneezing is a simple condition that may last for 10 to 20 seconds, and it usually does not require any treatment. During this spasm, the dog’s neck will extend and the chest will expand as he tries harder to inhale. At times, the trachea may narrow, which may lead to a deeper honking-like sound.
The most common cause of reverse sneezing is an irritation of the soft palate (a membrane that separates the nose from the mouth) and the throat that results in a spasm. Anything that irritates the throat can cause this spasm and subsequent sneeze. To be more specific, some causes—even seemingly innocuous ones—include: excitement, eating or drinking, exercise intolerance, pulling on a leash, nasal mites, pollen, foreign bodies caught in the throat, or any aerosolized or upper airway irritant.
But are certain breeds more prone to this condition? Yes. Brachycephalic dogs—those with flat faces, such as Pugs and Boxers—have elongated soft palates; they will sometimes suck their palate into the throat while inhaling, causing reverse sneezing. Yorkies, Chihuahuas and other small dogs are particularly prone to this behavior as well, possibly because of their throats are smaller in size.
If you want to know what you can do about reverse sneezing, take heart: it rarely requires treatment. Once the sneezing stops, the spasm is over. Often, one can massage the dog’s throat to stop the spasm. It can also be effective to cover the nostrils by pinching the dog’s nose for a few seconds. This can force the animal to swallow, which clears out whatever irritant is present and should stop the sneezing.
Treatment or elimination of the underlying cause is obviously useful, but in many cases the irritant cannot be determined, or it’s difficult to eliminate. Because reverse sneezing is not a severe problem, don’t worry about leaving your dog home alone. Should the episode occur when you’re away, it will most likely end on its own and your pet should recover from it naturally.
Occasionally, though, reverse sneezing can become a chronic problem. At the Worth Street Veterinary Center, we will try to determine the cause of chronic reverse sneezing by looking into the nasal passages. If necessary, we will prescribe an anti-histamine to alleviate the discomfort. Some pets have these episodes their entire lives, while others may develop it as they age. However, in most instances the spasm is a temporary problem that goes away on its own, leaving the dog with no after-effects.
Cats are less likely to reverse sneeze than dogs are. To be sure what’s going on, owners should always have their veterinarian examine the cat in case it’s feline asthma, and not reverse sneezing.