Written by Vet

Reverse Sneezing in Dogs Explained

  • Written by:Dr. Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS
What causes reverse sneezing in dogs? And more importantly is it harmful for your dog? In this article we will take an in-depth look at the phenomenon of reverse sneezing. Continue reading and discover if there's anything to worry about.

The fancy medical name for reverse sneezing is inspiratory paroxysmal respiration, but it is also known as backwards sneezing too. It is more commonly seen in small terrier breeds or brachycephalic breeds (which are those dogs with short noses and flat faces). It is quite a strange and alarming thing to watch, and can sound like your dog is doing a mix between a sneeze and snort!

So, what causes this condition? And more importantly is it harmful for your dog? In this article we will take an in-depth look at the phenomenon that is reverse sneezing. We will discuss if there is anything you should be worried about with this condition and if any treatment is required.

What Exactly is Reverse Sneezing?

We all know that during a normal sneeze air is pushed rapidly OUT OF the nose. However, reverse sneezing is when a dog rapidly pulls air INTO the nose. This causes the dog to make a snorting or gagging nose while it appears to be inhaling or breathing in. It is thought to be a protective reflex to remove anything unwanted from the back of the throat and nose, and protect anything strange from entering the windpipe(1)!

Often a dog will have a few reverse sneezes in a row and will dramatically extend out it’s head and neck, as it makes a loud snorting noise(2). Usually it doesn’t last more than a minute. It can be quite a surprise to witness the first time you see it happen to your dog!

Now we know what reverse sneezing is and what happens to your dog during one of these episodes. But what causes this weird sneezing episode? Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the cause is often unknown. Let’s look at the possible causes in a little more detail below.

What Causes Reverse Sneezing?

The exact cause of reverse sneezing is unknown but there are thought to be many possible underlying triggers including:

  • A nasal allergy
  • Irritation to nasal canals, back of the throat or sinuses
  • Attempt to remove mucus from the nose or throat
  • Attempt to remove a foreign body (grass, grass seed etc.) from the nose or throat
  • Over-excitement

Common irritations include nasal mites, smoke, air fresheners, pollens, infections, grasses or a build up of mucus due to an illness. Allergies may also play a role in dogs with regular bouts of reverse sneezing, and could be to anything the dog has recently breathed in. Other less common causes include an elongated soft palate, fungal infections(3) and masses or polyps in the nose or throat area.

It may be frustrating that the cause is unknown, but the majority of cases are linked to some sort of irritant of the nose or throat. Therefore, if your dog suffers from a one-off episode of reverse sneezing you might not figure out what has caused it. However, if your dog continues to have episodes of this weird sneezing you might need to try to figure out any pattern or underlying cause that might be causing it, such as air fresheners or smoke in your home, or any allergy to pollens and grasses.

When Does It Occur?

Most of the time you can’t predict reverse sneezing. It might happen once to your dog and then never happen again. Although some dogs can frequently suffer from this problem, especially if there is an underlying allergic trigger. Reverse sneezing can occur while the dog is sleeping or immediately after a nap. It may happen to others after exercise, playing or after eating. Therefore, it can pretty much happen at any time!

What Type of Dogs Are Affected?

Any type or breed of dog can be affected by reverse sneezing. However, smaller dogs such as terriers and miniatures, and brachycephalics (those with short noses and flatter faces) tend to suffer from this problem more frequently.

Are Reverse Sneezes Harmful to Dogs?

Reverse sneezing is not known to be harmful in any way to your dog. However, sometimes it can be a little bit distressing for the dog when it happens and they may take a minute to get their breath back afterwards. Most dogs act completely normal before and after reverse sneezing episodes.

If your dog seems to be doing reverse sneezing, but seems distressed or ill in anyway, there may be another problem underlying. A simple case of reverse sneezing is not harmful in any way to your dog. Therefore, if he isn’t acting normal or seems to be unwell, it is always best to go to your veterinary clinic.

How is Reverse Sneezing Diagnosed?

Often reverse sneezing is diagnosed just on the clinical signs and description of the event. It can be helpful to video the episodes to show your veterinarian if you are concerned.

If your dog seems totally fine after a few reverse sneezes, then it is nothing to worry about.

However, if your dog is having recurrent episodes of reverse sneezing then your veterinarian may want to rule out other causes of snorting or abnormal breathing. Other things which can sometimes cause similar signs include: upper respiratory tract infection, collapsing trachea (wind pipe), tumours or polyps or a foreign body in the nose or mouth. Sometimes blood tests, allergy tests, x-rays or endoscopy (a tiny camera placed into the nasal canal) might be required to check for these other underlying causes.

Is There Any Treatment Required?

Most of the time absolutely no treatment is needed if your dog has an episode of reverse sneezing. However, some people have reported that softly blowing into their dog’s face or lightly scratching its neck or sides may help calm the dog and make the episode pass faster. Normally reverse sneezing lasts for less than a minute, although it always feels longer if you are watching your own dog!

If your dog suffers from recurrent bouts of reverse sneezing, or your dog seems distressed or unwell following the reverse sneezes, then make sure you talk to your veterinarian. Remember to video an episode if you can. Sometimes a veterinarian may prescribe medication such as antihistamines, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or steroids if the problem is caused by an allergic reaction(4).

Conclusion

Reverse sneezing is a commonly encountered problem in dogs and can affect any breed or type of dog. It happens because the dog strongly inhales air into it’s nose, causing it to make a strange snorting and honking noise. Surprisingly, in the majority of cases the actual cause is unknown. However, certain things are thought to trigger episodes of reverse sneezing, such as things that irritate the nose or throat, infections, allergies, foreign bodies or even excess mucus.

Usually no treatment is needed and your dog will be absolutely fine once the episode passes. If your dog has regular bouts of reverse sneezing, seems ill or you are not sure that is definitely what your dog is suffering from, then it is always best to seek veterinary advice. It can be alarming to watch the first time it happens to your pet, but the important take home message is that these strange episodes of sneezing are absolutely nothing to worry about!