The Pet Corner: Reverse sneezing in dogs

There is a unique condition in dogs that continues to baffle most pet owners.

It causes pet owners to struggle to describe the clinical symptoms. Some will say their dog is having a panic attack, asthma or even choking.

Coughing, gagging, spitting up, snorting, honking, gasping and seizure-like activity has also been used to describe this unusual condition.

Watching pet owners try to imitate the symptoms has been comic relief. When I try to mimic the signs back to pet owners, we are acting out the same silly dog impressions.

This condition which eludes pet owner’s self-diagnosis is known as reverse sneezing. It is quite scary for most pet owners when their dog experiences a reverse sneeze.

Their dog begins making unpleasant respiratory noises that sound and look like it is dying or will die within the next few minutes.

I have seen many owners rush their dog into the clinic, even after hours, thinking they had an actual emergency to find out it was a reverse sneeze.

By the time they get to the clinic, the dog has stopped and is acting normal. Therefore, they have to make their best impression of their dog’s reverse sneeze followed by my best impression.

A reverse sneeze is also known as a pharyngeal gag reflex.

It is not a sneeze at all. It is an irritation of the soft palate, soft tissue in the roof of the mouth and back of the throat that results in a spasm.

Dogs will extend their neck and strain to breathe in or inhale. A typical sneeze is an involuntary, forceful exhale or breathing out.

A reverse sneeze is the opposite which is a spontaneous, forceful inhalation or breathing in.

During the process, it is difficult for the dog to breathe in the appropriate amount of air. It is common for dogs to become anxious and have somewhat of a panic attack.

Anything that could make a dog sneeze can also cause a dog to have a reverse sneeze.

Things like chemicals, viruses, food particles, mites, dust and allergies are all common causes for reverse sneezes. Allergies are the most likely culprit.

Brachycephalic breeds, those with flat faces such as pugs, boxers and English bulldogs, are more prone to reverse sneezes due to their elongated soft palate.

Small dogs are also more likely to have a reverse sneeze. The reason is not understood unless it is just because they have smaller throats and airways.

Some dogs might have this condition their whole lives, or they can develop it as they get older. Sometimes, you can massage their throat to help stop the episode. It seems to comfort them if they become anxious. Getting them to calm down allows them to breathe more comfortably and it won’t hurt anything at all.

Blowing in their nose or covering their nostrils may cause them to swallow which should stop the reverse sneeze.

Most importantly, treating the underlying causes, if known, is the best approach to prevent reverse sneezing.

If your veterinarian determines your dog has allergies, medications can be beneficial and should reduce the episodes of reverse sneezing.

If your dog’s reverse sneeze becomes a chronic or persistent problem, your veterinarian may need to look in the nasal passages for a foreign body or may need to biopsy any masses or polyps found.

Brachycephalic breeds benefit from having surgery to remove a portion of their elongated soft palate which laser surgery has revolutionized.

The older technique was hazardous due to bleeding since it was too tricky to suture so far back in the throat.

The laser cauterizes the tissue as it cuts allowing the procedure to be performed with no bleeding at all.

It also sears the nerves, so there is much less pain after surgery.

This surgery improves the dog’s ability to breathe, reduces snoring, and helps prevent reverse sneezing.

Reverse sneezing is not always a severe problem. If your dog does it persistently, there is likely an underlying, more serious problem.

If you notice your dog reverse sneezing, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your dog lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Dr. Jeff Castle is a veterinarian at Clark County Veterinary Clinic.