What Is Reverse Sneezing in Dogs & How Can You Stop It?

Updated January 19, 2022
Shih tzu in nature

A bout of reverse sneezing in dogs can be very frightening for owners who don't understand what's happening to their pets. Fortunately, a true reverse sneeze is an involuntary and harmless breathing spasm that should pass after about 30 seconds. Don't panic, and make sure your dog is comfortable while you wait for the episode to pass. Find out more about reverse sneezing and what you can do to help your dog the next time it happens.

About Reverse Sneezing in Dogs

Understanding what's going on during a reverse sneeze may remove some of the fear surrounding this occurrence.

What an Episode Looks Like

You may already have witnessed a bout of reverse sneezing in your pet and not even realized what it was. A dog having an episode of reverse sneezing sounds like they are simultaneously gagging and rapidly breathing in air. The sound is akin to a long snort, but it sounds like the snort is drawn in rather than expelled.

During one of these episodes, the dog will usually stand stiffly and may hold their neck and head out and downward as they struggle to regain normal breathing. The episode is usually over within a few minutes, and then your dog will return back to normal with no lasting ill effects.

"Sneeze" Is a Misnomer

Here's the kicker: a reverse sneeze isn't a sneeze at all. It's actually a pharyngeal gag reflex, more recently referred to as inspiratory paroxysmal respiration. This is a spasm of the soft palate that is typically caused by some sort of irritant or other factor.

During one of these breathing spasms, the dog's airway becomes temporarily narrowed. This makes it more difficult for them to breathe, although they are still able to take in some air. This might sound scary, but a reverse sneeze is usually far more frightening than it is harmful.

Causes of Reverse Sneezing

There are many causes for reverse sneezing in dogs, and irritants are often the main culprit. Common irritants include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Dust, pollen, smoke, and mold spores, as well as a resulting allergy to one of these irritants
  • Perfumes and scented home products like candles and air fresheners
  • Cleaning products
  • Chemicals in carpets
  • Foreign bodies (like a grass awn) in the nose or throat
  • Presence of a tumor or mass
  • Nasal mites

Other causes for these soft palate spasms include the following scenarios:

  • Anxiety or overexcitement
  • Overexertion during play or exercise
  • Viral infections like the common cold
  • Dog collar pressing against the throat (for example, when pulling on a leash)

How to Help Your Dog During a Typical Spasm

Woman with her dog

If your dog is having a soft palate spasm, you don't actually have to do anything but give your dog some time to recover on their own. However, it can be difficult to watch a dog struggle through one of these episodes, and it's natural to want to help them.

If you can persuade your dog to swallow, this usually helps stop the spasms. You can do this in one of three ways.

  1. First, you can try gently stroking your dog's throat in a downward motion. Gliding your hand over the throat tissues will often produce a swallow. This motion, combined with soothing words, should also help to calm your dog.
  2. If this doesn't encourage them to swallow, you can try placing your fingers over the nostrils for just a second or two. Your dog's automatic reaction should be to lick their nose, and this will be followed by a swallow. A couple of licks will usually resolve the situation, and then you can let go. However, if this doesn't work, don't cover your dog's nostrils for a prolonged period beyond a couple of seconds.
  3. Finally, you can try lightly blowing in your dog's face. This burst of air will slightly startle them and should cause them to pause, then swallow.

It may take a few seconds more for your dog to fully recover, but these techniques usually do the trick. If the episode does not halt within 30 seconds to a minute, it may be more serious and should be addressed by a veterinarian.

Breeds at Higher Risk for Reverse Sneezing

Any dog can experience an episode of reverse sneezing, but some breeds are at higher risk due to their airway anatomy. Brachycephalic breeds are prone to having elongated soft palates. The soft palate's main job is to momentarily close off the airway when a dog swallows. This prevents solids and liquids from passing into the airway, rather than traveling down the esophagus as they should.

These brachycephalic dogs have rather round heads and very short muzzles. Due to this conformation, there's reduced space for the soft palate, and it tends to overlap the airway and sometimes obstruct breathing. In some serious cases, part of the soft palate must be surgically removed in order to prevent dangerous blocking of the airway.

Breeds typically affected include, but are not limited to, the following:

Miniature and toy breeds are also more suspectible to experiencing these spasms because they have small throats. Even if they don't have a long soft palate, the tissue can still trigger a reverse sneeze. These breeds are also prone to tracheal collapse, which is a serious condition, and should not be confused with reverse sneezing.

When the Problem May Be More Serious

The occasional reverse sneeze isn't anything to worry over. However, in some cases, it could be associated with a more serious problem. If your dog has a breathing spasm in addition to any of the following symptoms, see your vet.

  • Very frequent or consecutive reverse sneeze episodes
  • Labored breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Gasping
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Coughing
  • Frequent sneezing
  • Nasal discharge

No Need to Fear the Reverse Sneeze

Since you likely won't know what caused your dog's soft palate spasms the first time you witness an episode, it can be a good idea to consult your vet about the incident. They can advise if it's worth an exam to determine the cause or rule out any abnormalities. In some cases, a simple fix, such as introducing an air purifier or antihistamine medication, may be recommended for dogs that experience reverse sneezing triggered by allergies. However, the presence of nasal mites, a foreign body, or tumor require more extensive treatment.

If you happen to have one of the brachycephalic breeds, it's helpful to understand the extent of the elongated soft palate and whether your pet is a candidate for surgery to relieve the problem. On the other hand, you may be relieved to find that your dog doesn't have a serious condition, and you can learn to take these episodes in stride.

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