All dogs, like people, sneeze sometimes – this is completely normal and should not cause you any concern. However, if your dog cannot stop sneezing, shows signs of distress while sneezing or continues to sneeze intermittently for more than a week you should contact your vet for advice. Sneezing is not a disease in its own right but can be an indicator that something is wrong with your pet.
Why do dogs sneeze?
Sneezing is a normal reflex to try and clear irritating particles from the nasal passages. Foreign particles in the nasal chamber stimulate the lining of the nose. This causes release of substances which send signals to the brain triggering the sneeze reflex.
When an animal sneezes the tongue lifts up to close off the mouth. Air from the lungs is then expelled explosively up the respiratory tract and out through the nose. The seal to the mouth is not complete and some air is also expelled through the mouth.
What is 'reverse sneezing'?
‘Reverse sneezing’ is a bizarre activity but if your dog has done this you will almost certainly have recognised it. It is a brief period (usually lasting less than a minute) of noisy laboured inspiration. Affected dogs look a bit like they are suppressing hiccups but at the same time make a snorting sound. Reverse sneezing is thought to be caused by irritation to the back of the mouth where the air passages from the nose and mouth join together.
Sometimes owners may mistake this for gagging or choking and it can look very frightening when it happens. However, it is generally nothing to worry about if it doesn’t occur too often – you should mention the attacks to your vet but in many cases no investigation will be required. Some dogs exhibit reverse sneezing when they get excited and in many dogs there is no obvious reason for it.
There are a number of more serious conditions which can be confused with reverse sneezing such as laryngeal and tracheal collapse and coughing so it is important to be sure that the diagnosis is correct. There are many videos of the event on YouTube and the activity is so distinctive that if you watch one of the videos you should be able to tell if your dog has experienced a reverse sneezing attack.
Why is my dog sneezing?
The occasional sneeze is a completely normal event. Infections like the common cold in people are not a common cause of sneezing in dogs. However, the dog’s nose is very sensitive and it can be easily irritated by household sprays and perfumes. Dogs can also develop allergies to pollens or dusts in the air and whilst these often cause skin itching some affected dogs will also sneeze. Dogs with flattened faces like Pugs and Shih Tzus have compressed nasal passages and these breeds may be more likely to sneeze due to minor irritation in the nose.
If your dog continues to sneeze without a simple explanation, it is sometimes a sign of a more serious problem.
If sneezing developed suddenly when your dog was outside, and failed to stop, it may be that your dog breathed in a grass seed or other foreign object which lodged in the nose. Dogs with a foreign body in their nose may rub at their face with their paw or rub their faces along the ground as well as sneezing.
The nasal passages in long nosed dogs are an occasional site for growths (tumours) to develop, usually in older dogs. Sometimes you may see a swelling on the side of the face.
In some dogs, a serious fungal infection establishes in the nose and sinuses. This fungus is widespread in the environment and it is not known why it will take hold inside the nose of some dogs when they breathe in microscopic fungal particles from the surroundings. Fungal infection in the nose can cause a lot of inflammation and damage and is quite uncomfortable for the dog. There is often a thick, greenish discharge from one or both nostrils and sometimes nosebleeds.
Nasal mites are currently a rare cause of sneezing in UK dogs, but more common in other parts of Europe. They are a small parasite, less than 1 mm in length, living within the nose and may occasionally be seen around the nostrils. They are easily treated.
What other signs might my dog show?
If sneezing persists for a while it is not uncommon to see a discharge from one or both nostrils. Initially this discharge may be clear but can become greenish or bloody over time. It is important to keep a note of as much information as you can such as:
When did sneezing start?
Has there been any discharges from the nose and what did it look like?
Did the discharge come from one nostril or both?
Animals with a more serious underlying disease causing sneezing may be depressed and unwilling to eat. Other signs such as coughing, gagging and retching indicate that there may be a more generalised illness and if any of these other signs occur with sneezing you should seek help from your vet.
How would my vet know what is wrong with my dog?
If your pet is just sneezing occasionally, or has only been sneezing for a few days and shows no other signs of illness, your vet may advise you just to monitor the problem and see if it improves. Your vet will ask you lots of questions about the nature of the sneezing and whether there has been any discharge from the nose. Think about whether you have noticed any other changes in your dog’s behaviour or appetite.
However, if your pet is continually sneezing or seems distressed or unwell your vet will want to do some further tests. Firstly your vet will examine your dog, checking for any swellings around the face or in the mouth, or if there is any sign of pain. Your vet may use or recommend a range of tests to diagnose the problem in your nose. This will usually require an anaesthetic. These might include:
Looking up the nose with an endoscope (a rigid or flexible instrument with a small camera on the end).
X-rays of the nose and sinuses.
MRI or CT scan of the nose.
Flushing liquid through the nose to try and dislodge foreign material or bits of tissue that cannot be removed with the scope.
Taking biopsies of the lining of the nose (useful to rule out cancerous change and diagnose inflammation and allergic change).
Will there be any treatment for my pet?
Sneezing is not a disease in itself – it is just a sign that another disease is present. Therefore any treatment will depend on what the underlying cause of sneezing is in each case. Foreign bodies can be simply removed from the nose in most cases and hopefully no further treatment will be needed. Some growths such as polyps can be removed surgically but most nasal tumours are too invasive to remove completely. However, some of these tumours will respond well to radiation treatment or chemotherapy so further advice from a veterinary oncologist (cancer specialist) should be sought if your pet is found to have a nasal tumour. Infections can be treated with different drugs (depending on what infection is present) but these treatments often have to be given for long periods of time and can have some significant side effects. The most effective treatment for fungal infection in the nose often includes applying the antifungal drug directly to the inside of the nose under anaesthetic.
Dogs with allergies will need long term management of that condition. It may be possible to give some symptomatic treatment initially which will rapidly control signs of itching and sneezing.
Sneezing is a natural protective reflex and is generally nothing to worry about. However, if your dog continues to sneeze or seems unwell in any way then you should contact your vet for further advice.
If you have any concerns about your dog contact your own vet for further advice.