It can be disturbing to owners the first time they observe their dogs in the throes of reverse sneezing episodes. Reverse sneezing can sound and appear as though the dog is in respiratory distress and has something lodged in his nasal passages. Some owners describe the sound of a reverse sneeze to that of a goose honking. If your dog launches into episodes of frantic snorting, understanding the cause of reverse sneezing will put your mind at ease and reveal a simple trick that you can perform at home to quell the attack.
Sneezing vs. Reverse Sneezing
When you or your dog sneezes normally, air is rapidly expelled through the nose. This is often in response to an irritant that tickles the nasal passages and is the nose's reaction to get rid of the offending culprit. Conversely, during a reverse sneeze, air is rapidly sucked into the nose. This can occur as a means to eliminate irritants from the nasal passages as well, and irritants include allergens, dust, smoke, chemicals, such as household cleaning products, and strong scents, such as perfume. Reverse sneezing can also be incited by any the following triggers:
- Eating or drinking too rapidly
- Pulling on the leash
- Respiratory conditions
Any dog can be affected by reverse sneezing, but breeds that have pushed in faces, or brachycephalic heads, are at higher risk. These breeds include the following:
- Cavalier King Charles spaniels
- English bulldogs
- French bulldogs
- Boston terriers
Due to their shortened airways and shorter skulls, brachycephalic breeds are genetically predisposed to brachycephalic airway syndrome due to structural defects that result in respiratory problems and exacerbate reverse sneezing. These defects include the following:
- Stenotic nares, or narrow nostril openings
- Narrowed trachea
- Elongated soft palate
- Laryngeal saccule eversion
If you have a brachycephalic breed that has experienced reverse sneezing or displays any signs of respiratory compromise, such as wheezing, gagging, snorting and snoring, have your dog evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if he has one of these defects. If you suspect that your dog, regardless of breed, has experienced a reverse sneeze, your veterinarian will want to rule of other potential causes of the symptoms, including nasal tumors or polyps, a collapsing trachea and a foreign body trapped in the nasal passages.
The Reverse Sneeze Process
A reverse sneeze, which also goes by the names pharyngeal gag reflex and paroxysmal respiration, is initiated by a spasm that occurs in your dog's soft palate and laryngeal areas. As this spasm occurs, your dog's trachea is narrowed, forcing him to breathe forcefully through his nose. As air gets pulled into the nasal passages, you will hear gasping sounds that can resemble honking, heavy snorting or loud grunting. Your dog may extend his neck in an attempt to open his airway, and his eyes may bulge slightly as he struggles to get through the episode. This is when panicky pet parents rush to a veterinarian for fear of their furry friend choking to death. The good news is that reverse sneezing is not life-threatening and is much less scary than it appears. Most episodes last seconds and sometimes endure for only a minute or so, and no treatment or intervention is necessary for reverse sneezing. The biggest problem is that while your dog is in the throes of a reverse sneeze, he becomes stressed. If this in turn stresses you out, there are things that you can do at home to quell a spell of reverse sneezing.
Dip the Nose, End the Woes
Since the soft palate is caught in a spasm during reverse sneezing, stopping the process is usually as simple as getting your dog to swallow. The easiest way to accomplish this is to grab his water bowl, bring it over to him, and quickly dip the end of his nose into the water for only a split second. His reflex will be to lick the water off of his nose, and then a swallow will follow.
If an attack occurs when you are away from home where a water bowl is not readily available, you can try one of the following methods of intervention instead:
- Gently massage your dog's throat, which may prompt him to swallow.
- Cover his nostrils for two seconds and then release. This may get him to swallow as well.
- Reach into his mouth and depress his tongue with your fingers to help open the airway and allow a more efficient airflow.
Once air exits from your dog's nose, the spell is over. Your nerves may be rattled, but your dog will likely act as though nothing ever happened.
If reverse sneezing becomes a chronic problem for your dog and is accompanied by other symptoms, schedule an appointment with your veterinary clinic to confirm that some other condition that requires medical treatment is not the culprit. If allergies are the suspected trigger of your dog's reverse sneeze attacks, antihistamine or anti-inflammatory drugs may be recommended to control his body's allergy response.