One morning, just after waking up, Lucy started sneezing. This isn’t unusual: it’s common for dogs, like people, to sneeze from time to time. However on this occasion, something strange and worrying happened. Lucy stopped sneezing, and instead she began to snort and splutter, struggling to catch her breath. The little dog began to panic, and Elaine tried to soothe her, petting and talking quietly to her. Her breathing returned to normal after a few minutes, but Elaine was still worried. She brought her up to me at once.
Elaine was right to be concerned: breathing difficulties can be life threatening. If a pet owner observes any breathing pattern that seems unusual, it’s always safer to seek the advice of a vet. If the strange breathing is an intermittent problem, with normal breathing in between, it can be helpful to take a video of the abnormal breathing pattern so that you can show this to the vet.
By the time Lucy was brought to see me, the crisis was over. In animals with respiratory problems, the breathing can be very rapid, or there may be exaggerated movements of the chest or abdomen. Lucy had none of these signs: she was breathing in and out smoothly and quietly, and her chest was barely moving.
When I listened to her chest with my stethoscope, I could only hear the normal quiet hiss of air being sucked into the lungs and air being breathed out. In cases of respiratory disease, you can often hear increased chest noise when using the stethoscope, with crackles, hisses, roars and rattles. Heart disease is a common cause of breathing difficulties in dogs, but when I listened to the sound of Lucy’s heart, this too was normal.
My conclusion was that Lucy had a normal heart and respiratory system. So what was going on that had caused her to have the worrying episode that Elaine had witnessed? I suspected that she was suffering from a common and normal phenomenon known as “reverse sneezing”.
Everybody knows that sneezing happens when there’s an irritation of the inside of the nose. During a sneeze, there’s the slow intake of air, followed by the sudden, forceful, explosive expulsion of air from the lungs, through the nose and mouth. Sneezing is an effective reflex for expelling small particles from the nose.
“Reverse sneezing” is a similar type of protective reflex, but in the opposite direction. It happens when there’s an irritation at the back of the nose or the throat. The dog stands with its neck outstretched and lips drawn back. There’s rapid and repeated forced inhalation through the nose, which can be noisy. After a few minutes, the breathing returns to normal.
I showed Elaine a Youtube video of a dog reverse-sneezing, and she agreed that this is what Lucy had been doing. Occasional reverse sneeze episodes are common in some dogs, especially in so-called brachycephalic breeds (those with shorter noses, such as Bichons, Boxers, Pugs and many others). In most cases, it’s nothing to worry about: it’s just something that happens. Rarely, there can be a more serious cause, such as an inhaled grass seed, in which case the affected animal will begin to reverse-sneeze so much that further investigations (such as scoping the dog) are needed to solve the problem.
Occasional reverse-sneezers like Lucy don’t need any treatment: once owners know what’s going on, gentle reassurance of the pet is all that’s needed. Sometimes squeezing the nostrils closed and stroking the throat can help to stop the problem more rapidly.
If you think your pet may have reverse-sneezing, check it out on Youtube. And if you’re worried, do take a video yourself: your vet will be happy to confirm the diagnosis.
- Abnormal breathing patterns can indicate serious disease in pets
- There are also some normal but strange breathing patterns, like reverse sneezing
- It’s worth taking a video to show your vet if your pet has this type of problem