Surprise! Some sneezes go backward

In our vet hospitals in Canberra, we are often presented with dogs who appear to be gagging. Sometimes this is actually a “Reverse Sneeze” and fairly aptly named. Most people think the dog is choking on something or has something stuck in his nose/mouth. They also think the dog cannot breathe.

While a forward sneeze is a forceful expulsion of air out the nose to blow mucous and whatnot into the world, a reverse sneeze is that noisy phenomenon that happens when dogs inhale forcefully to try and suck that same mucus into their pharnynx, or throat. Their tonsils and tongue set up such a rattle when it happens that some owners are certain that their dog is choking and they scoop them up and head to us in a panic. Usually when they arrive, both parties are looking sheepish as the episode has passed and no one is really sure any more why they are there.

It can be set off by allergies, dusty environments – who knows. It is not a serious event and definitely doesn’t warrant a trip to an emergency centre. In some cases, though, it can be enough of a persistent or annoying problem for either the dog or the owners that it does need addressing. In some cases, antihistamines or other medications can help blunt the effects of allergies, so opening up a conversation with your trusted family veterinarian can be helpful. I have had many owners tell me that they think gently massaging their dog’s throat just under the angle of the jaw can help shorten the episode; the key word here is gently.

This problem can be especially pernicious in those snub-nosed breeds like Pugs, Bulldogs and Boxers – they are prone to a whole constellation of upper airway malformations (knows as brachycephalic airway syndrome) that ends up with them having yards of extra tissue in their throat that just flap around like flags in the breeze. Severe cases may need surgery, but milder cases can sometimes be managed with medication, weight loss or lifestyle changes.