The Reverse Sneeze
The definition of a normal sneeze is a protective expiration reflex – air is expelled OUT.
So the reverse sneeze is the protective repetitive inspiratory reflex. Air is violently pulled IN.
Both types of sneezing serve to try and remove air and irritants from the nasal cavity.
What owners may notice is an event that gives the impression that the dog may die at any moment. The dog may brace into a frozen position and start deep inhaling resulting in a honk or snort. It tends to repeat itself over and over. To the owner that has never seen this before it can be a frightening experience. Cats can also experience the same type of symptoms.
The cause of a reverse sneeze is the stimulation of the lining of the sinuses by things like infection, parasites, irritants or mechanical stimulation. Irritation of the soft palate and throat causes spasm and thus the disruptive noise. A dog will extend its neck, the chest will expand and the dog will try to inhale quickly over and over again. Owners tend to be alarmed and think that a respiratory emergency is taking place. Be advised that it will end, and that no treatment is necessary with an occasional reverse sneeze.
Small dogs and short faced dog (brachycephalic) are more prone to making this noise. The airways are smaller in smaller breeds and short faced dogs have longer soft palates that may trigger the irritation.
Smaller dog breeds tend to show these episodes once and a while. If the frequency increases and it seems to be affecting daily routine you should contact your veterinarian.
If a reverse sneeze is only occasional, no treatment is necessary. You may seek your vetererinarians advice the first time just to relieve your worry, especially if you have not seen this before. Some suggest that there are tricks that can be used to stop an episode. One trick is to cover the nostrils and make the dog swallow and clear whatever is triggering the sneeze. Also, pushing down on the open mouth, on the tongue can also open the air way to clear and stop the reflex. Although they may stop the spasm, it is really not necessary to learn or to do these things, as the dog is generally in no danger.
Diagnosis is made by the description so be ready to explain to your veterinarian what you may have seen. If there are no other signs of infection or chest compromise, a reverse sneeze is most likely the cause. After a thorough history of possible exposures (inhalants, pollen, cleaners, etc) your veterinarian may prescribe antihistamines if allergies are the possible culprit.
The reverse sneeze is a bizarre phenomenon that pets experience but it is only as bizarre as our normal sneeze which I assure you would be a very scary clinical symptom had we never seen a person or pet sneeze before. It is just another way the body reacts to keep its airways cleared of those things that shouldn’t be there.