As a dog parent, you are well-familiar with every sound your dog makes. But when your dog starts having something that looks like hiccups but it is not, it is natural to be confused.
My dog looks like hiccups but not – chances are you have witnessed this scenario. But what does it mean? When a dog seems like it’s having something similar to hiccups, it is actually experiencing throat spasms. The phenomenon is also known as reverse sneezing, paroxysmal inspiratory respiration, or simply honking. It develops due to a throat muscle spasm that lasts for about 30 seconds and during which the trachea narrows, thus making your dog gasp for air.
Watching a dog go through a reverse sneezing bout can be discerning, especially for a first-time dog parent that does not know what is going on.
In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about this peculiar but normal occurrence. We will also give you a tip or two about what to do when your dog starts reverse sneezing.
The reverse sneeze (dog hiccup) anatomy
Despite its popular name, reverse sneezing sounds more like hiccups than actual sneezing. Reverse sneezing is also anatomically and functionally different from regular sneezing.
Namely, during a regular sneeze, an irritant inside the nasal passages makes the dog forcefully expel air through the nose.
During a reverse sneeze, the dog rapidly pulls air through the nose while standing still and with an extended neck and head.
This forced air pulling lasts for several seconds, usually 30 and no more than a minute. The moment the dog exhales through the nose, the reverse sneezing episode ends.
One diagnosis with many names
Reverse sneezing is known by many names, including – inhaling sneezes, snorting backwards, air gasping, huffing cough, honking cough, and paroxysmal inspiratory respiration.
Why is my dog having throat spasms?
Throat spasms or reverse sneezing is a bit of a mystery – nobody knows why they really occur. However, it is well-established that irritants located in the back of the throat can predispose dogs to more frequent reverse sneezing.
Allergens (pollen, smoke, dust, perfumes), nasal mites, tumors, masses, and foreign bodies (foxtail) in the airway are all considered irritants.
In general, throat spasms are possible in all dogs. However, they are more common in small dog breeds and dogs with long but narrow nasal passages.
Flat-faced or brachycephalic dogs are most likely to experience frequent throat spasms because of anatomical abnormalities. To be more accurate, in flat-faced dogs, like Bulldogs, Boxers, and Pugs, simple excitement is enough to cause throat spasms and consequent reverse sneezing.
An overview of the most common reverse sneezing/dog hiccup causes
Reverse sneezing, especially if chronic, is usually associated with one of the following conditions.
Any allergen responsible for triggering an allergic reaction can cause reverse sneezing. Popular allergens include pollen, dust, perfumes, bed mites, and smoke.
Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts and can develop in any dog regardless of breed, age, or sex.
Rhinitis and sinusitis develop when a viral infection inflames the mucous membranes of the nose and sinuses. Common viral culprits include canine distemper, parainfluenza, adenovirus type 1, and adenovirus type 2 (kennel cough complex).
Once the viral infection disrupts the protective barrier, a secondary bacterial infection develops and aggravates the clinical manifestation.
A dog with rhinitis or/and sinusitis will cough, reverse sneeze, breathe with an open mouth, have bad breath, and frequently rub its face with the paws.
Nasal mites are tiny, microscopic bugs that live in the nasal passages. In most cases, nasal mites do not trigger any specific symptoms other than occasional coughing and reverse sneezing.
Nasal mites can affect any dog and are transmitted when two dogs touch each other noses.
Dog hiccups or choking – how to tell the difference?
The best way of differentiating between benign hiccups and choking is to observe your dog’s overall reaction, body language and interpret the signs it is showing.
In general, a dog that is choking will exhibit the following signs and symptoms:
- Pawing at the face
- Pronounced agitation
- Excessive drooling
- Bluish coloration of the tongue and gums.
Choking is a life-threatening situation that warrants immediate attention.
Dog hiccups no sound – what does it mean?
Just like in people, hiccups are common and normal in dogs. In fact, in the canine world, hiccups are much more common among puppies than adult dogs. This is possibly because young puppies tend to run around with their mouths open and gulp food down when eating.
When a dog has hiccups, it is experiencing diaphragm spasms that are visible and usually accompanied by the characteristic “hic” sound.
In some dogs, the spasms and sounds are accompanied by burping, and on others, the audible part can be missing. A dog can have hiccups (the spasms part) without the “hic” sounds.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that some dogs may sound like they are having hiccups when retching or reverse sneezing.
What to do when a dog is reverse sneezing?
The most important thing is to remember your dog is not in danger and to remain calm. There are several ways of helping your dog finish the reverse sneezing episode as soon and as smoothly as possible.
Considering most reverse sneezing episodes are triggered by throat irritation, it is logical that a gentle throat massage can help alleviate the irritation.
All you need to do is rub your dog’s throat with the back of your fingers. It is also recommended to calm your dog by talking in a sweet and comforting manner.
Another way of ending a reverse sneezing episode is to blow small air puffs into your dog’s face. The blown air is supposed to break the inhalation cycle that occurs during reverse sneezing.
You need to stay around 15 cm apart from your dog and gently blow into its face, preferably towards the nose.
Shut your dog’s nose
You can pinch your dog’s nose for one or two seconds which will make your dog involuntarily swallow. Swallowing soothes throat irritation and will likely end the reverse sneezing episode.
When pinching your dog’s nose, use your thumb and forefinger to make a quick and gentle squeeze. Remember not to squeeze too hard and not hold the nose shut for more than a few seconds.
Press your dog’s tongue in its mouth
You can stick two fingers inside your dog’s mouth and gently press its tongue toward the bottom of the mouth. This will open the breathing pathway and hopefully end the episode.
This technique is efficient, but you should not perform it unless absolutely sure your dog will not bite. Keep in mind that reverse sneezing can be stressful for some dogs, and a dog in distress may react adversely.
Fresh air can be the solution
Since the irritants are less dense in the fresh air, taking your dog outside while reverse sneezing makes sense.
A dog that is reverse sneezing will stay still. Therefore, you will have to pick it up and carry it outside for fresh air. It would help if you stayed calm while holding your dog; otherwise, you risk making it more upset.
Make a distraction
You can distract your dog by offering a treat. The goal is to make your dog swallow. Considering your dog can be distressed while reverse sneezing, the treat needs to be enticing enough.
If your dog is in panic, it will not accept the treat. In such a case, try some of the other techniques explained above.
When does reverse sneezing warrant a trip to the vet?
A dog that is reverse sneezing requires veterinary attention in four scenarios:
- If the reverse sneezing episodes are too frequent
- If the reverse sneezing episodes last longer than a minute
- If the dog manifests other signs and symptoms
- If the dog has other co-existing respiratory issues.
Co-existing respiratory issues that may complicate the reverse sneezing include:
- Asthma: as a chronic lung and airway irritation, it causes coughing, wheezing, and labored breathing.
- Upper respiratory tract infections: viral and bacterial infections of the upper airways manifest with watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, and honking cough.
- Collapsing trachea: causes are coughing and difficulty breathing, which the reverse sneezing episodes may aggravate.
- Brachycephalic syndrome: because of the shortened and distorted airways, brachycephalic dogs are already experiencing breathing issues.
- Heart disease: some types of heart disease can trigger fluid buildup in the lungs, which results in gasping, coughing, and retching.
Reverse sneezing – treatment and cost
Reverse sneezing does not entail treatment unless an underlying issue increases the dog’s risk of experiencing frequent episodes.
When an underlying issue exists, all efforts should be focused on managing the issue. For example, if the culprit is an allergy, antihistamines, corticosteroids, and desensitization is possible treatment options. In cases of rhinitis or sinusitis, the vet prescribes antibiotics. Finally, if the trigger is nasal mites, they need to be eliminated.
The treatment cost depends on the underlying cause and can range from $300 for nasal mites through $1500 for complicated rhinitis to a couple of thousands for desensitization shots.
Can reverse sneezing be prevented?
You cannot prevent reverse sneezing. You can avoid some of the underlying issues that lead to throat spasms, but there is no specific way of controlling the actual sneezing part.
In general, all dogs benefit from fresh air and exercise. However, a dog prone to throat spasms may start reverse sneezing if overly excited because of the walk or if excessively pulling on the leash.
It is comforting to know that reverse sneezing, although it may seem scary, is a normal and harmless phenomenon all dogs experience – some more and some less.
In fact, if you just witnessed your dog reverse sneezing, chances are it is not its first time. Your dog probably reverse sneezed many times before; you just were not there.
However, if the reverse sneezing becomes an everyday issue or presents with long-lasting episodes, it is best to stay on the safe side and have your dog examined by a vet. When parenting a dog, it is always best to stay on the safe side.
What is wrong with my dog’s throat?
The most common throat issue in dogs is pharyngitis – throat inflammation is usually caused by oral infections, spread gum diseases, and oral injuries. A dog with pharyngitis will have trouble swallowing. The treatment depends on the underlying cause but usually involves antibiotics.
Should I take my dog to the vet for reverse sneezing?
Occasional reverse sneezing episodes are not a reason to take your dog to the vet’s office. However, if it appears too frequently or lasts for too long, it is recommended to make an appointment with your trusted vet.
How do I get my dog to stop reverse sneezing?
Blowing at the face or holding the nostrils shut for a few seconds while gently massaging the throat will make most dogs stop reverse sneezing. The idea is to force the dog into swallowing, which contains the reverse sneezing episode.
Can reverse sneezing kill a dog?
No, worst-case scenario, reverse sneezing can be uncomfortable or stressful if the dog does not know what is happening. However, on its own, reverse sneezing is common and harmless.
Can reverse sneezing be a sign of kennel cough?
Reverse sneezing is one of the symptoms kennel cough triggers in dogs. However, a dog with kennel cough will exhibit an array of other clinical signs and symptoms.