Have you ever been startled by your dog exhibiting snorting, honking and gasping noises? Have you felt helpless while you watched your canine friend appear to be struggling to breathe?
What you probably witnessed is the condition in dogs known as reverse sneezing. It actually has nothing to do with sneezing, but is a spasm caused by an irritation of the soft palate. The soft palate is a soft, fleshy tissue extension off the hard palate, or roof of the mouth. Small dogs in particular can exhibit this behavior and certain breeds may be predisposed to it. It has sent many a distraught owner to the vet in panic.
Some animals can have this condition for their entire lives, or it may develop as the dog ages. During the spasm, the dog will usually turn her elbows outward and extend her neck while gasping inwards with a distinctive snorting sound. Gently massaging the throat area or pinching the dog's nostrils shut so she must breath through her mouth can help shorten the episode. Sometimes taking the dog outside in the fresh air stops the spasm. Once the attack ceases, all goes back to normal.
(Another technique sometimes used to stop a bout of canine reverse sneezing: behavior specialist Sarah Wilson suggests trying to get the dog to swallow, touching the back of the tongue if that is safe.)
It is thought that the pharyngeal spasm can be caused by a number of irritants, including dust and pollen, or household chemicals. Moreover, some dogs can launch an episode after eating, drinking or running around, or while pulling on the leash.
If your dog experiences this behavior fairly frequently and the episodes are severe, a trip to the vet is in order to determine other possible causes, which can include viral infections, polyps, excessive soft palate tissue, and nasal mites. However, many cases of reverse sneezing appear to have no identifiable cause.
There lives a small Chihuahua Beagle mix, Cynthia Louise, who possesses a certain PAW volunteer. Cindy was extremely prone to severe middle-of-the-night reverse sneezing episodes when she first came into the PAW program, sending her terrified then-foster mom (now devoted adopter) to the vet in alarm. The vet anesthetized her (Cindy, not her mom) and explored the little dog's sinus cavities as best she could to see if anything was embedded in her sinus passages. Nothing was found, and after a short course of anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics, Cindy recovered completely.
In hindsight, it seems quite likely that the time of year, autumn, with its accompanying proliferation of allergens, combined with the stress of being in a new household, may have contributed to Cindy's pronounced reverse sneezing. Since the initial episodes subsided, the little dog has had only one or two minor incidences.
Reverse sneezing appears a lot worse than it is, generally posing no health threats whatsoever. Typically, an episode of reverse sneezing will end soon on its own. Nevertheless, understanding and recognizing the syndrome can go a long way toward helping dog owners and their dogs cope with it.
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