I’ve actually had a few patients rushed in for emergency care because it seemed like they were gasping for breath. That wasn’t actually what was going on. Here’s what I told a a Facebook follower who asked me about her pet’s “reverse sneezing.”
Q: My little Chihuahua-mix makes a weird gasping sound at least once or twice a day. I thought she was choking the first time I heard it, but then she seems fine. What could be causing it?
A: That awful gagging sound — in veterinary speak called a “pharyngeal gag reflex” or “aspiration reflex” — is more commonly known as a reverse sneeze.
The rapid and repeated inhalation through the nose is usually caused by throat, sinus or nasal irritation, but it can also occur when dogs are excited or exposed to cold air. As the dog extends his neck in an attempt to relieve the uncomfortable feeling, the throat narrows, making it more difficult for air to pass through. The dog breathes harder, causing the throat to narrow even more.
What happens is that the dog rapidly takes in long breaths as the head and neck are extended. The result is a snorting sound. Once it’s over, he’s back to normal.
We typically see this problem in small dogs, probably because their throats are already small and then become constricted further, but it can occur in any dog. I recall a greyhound client who was known for the frightening sounds she would make during her reverse sneezes. Brachycephalic dogs — the ones with big heads and flat faces — are also prone to reverse sneezes. Reverse sneezes may also occur right after a dog wakes up or after he’s been eating or playing.
The good news is that although the snorting and gagging sound scary, this is a harmless behavior and doesn’t require any treatment. There’s no cure, but you can help to end it by gently blowing in your dog’s face and stroking his throat. That interrupts the behavior by causing him to swallow. Petting may also help him to relax. While medication isn’t necessary, if reverse sneezing is related to chronic allergies, your veterinarian may be able to prescribe medication that helps to reduce its incidence.
Read more, including puppy feeding tips, in this week’s Pet Connection!