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Why Do Dogs Sneeze?

And what can I (or should I) do when my dog keeps sneezing?

by Claudia Kawczynska
Updated March 19, 2020
A dog sneezing near a blossoming tree.
AdobeStock / Firn

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Your dog’s sense of smell is their superpower — they use their nose to decipher the world. So, it’s no surprise that, like people, they occasionally sneeze. Random sneezes aren’t necessarily something to be concerned about, but a dog sneezing a lot may be showing signs of a health condition requiring medical attention.

Uncontrolled or excessive sneezing in dogs can be caused by something as simple as pollen, household products (another reason to always use pet-safe versions), perfume and second-hand smoke; or water inhaled while swimming or during a bath. Dogs will even sometimes sneeze when they’re excited, or during play. While it’s likely that your dog’s sneezing is nothing to worry about, some dog sneezing should definitely be paid attention to and treated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

How Sneezing Works

Most of the time, sneezing is the result of a transitory irritation of a dog’s nasal passages. When your dog sneezes, it’s the body’s way of dislodging or expelling the irritant. If that irritant is small, say, a stray bit of leaf, a snip of freshly cut grass or some other small object that gets hoovered up during your dog’s investigation of their environment, a sneeze or two is usually enough to do the trick. However, that’s not always the case.

If your sneezing dog has nasal swelling, a persistent runny nose or nose bleeds, or is pawing at their nose, have your vet check them out without delay. Read on for the most common reasons your dog might be sneezing a lot.

8 Reasons Why Your Dog Might Keep Sneezing

Dog Play Sneezing

Is your dog sneezing when excited? When your dog is having fun rollicking with their pals, they might be doing something called play sneezing. Sometimes a dog will sneeze to signal to other dogs that they’re “just playing” or it’s “just a game,” and it’s completely normal. Dogs may sneeze when they’re zooming in the yard, from the sheer joy of it. (Smaller dogs are more likely to do this.) Nothing to worry about.

Reverse Sneezing

Then there’s reverse sneezing, which really isn’t a sneeze at all—it’s a sneeze that sounds more like a honk. Vets call it inspiratory paroxysmal respiration, and it’s brought on by a muscle spasm at the back of a dog’s mouth, where the mouth meets the throat. The spasm makes it hard for the dog to inhale. (Interestingly, many of the same things that set off other sneezing fits as described in this article will also trigger reverse sneezes.)

Plant Material

If your dog has snuffled up a foxtail—a fishhook-like dried grass seed—even repeated sneezing most likely will not expel it. Foxtails are engineered to transfer from the plant to a host faster than the speed of light, embed and then migrate, which they do in only one direction: forward. 

If your dog is unlucky enough to inhale a foxtail or other barbed grass awn, they’ll most likely sneeze like mad for a full few minutes, then stop. Most of us will then think, Whew, they sneezed it out, but sometimes, that’s not true. Instead, it may mean that the foxtail has already traveled further up the nasal cavity. You might even notice a tiny little drop of blood appear on the tip of the nostril.

It’s a good idea to leave the area, keep your dog calm and observe them closely. Unfortunately, detecting a foxtail in a dog’s nostril can be both difficult and painful, and most dogs aren’t going to let you probe around looking for it.  If you believe your dog has inhaled a foxtail, a vet visit is definitely in order. Don’t dally; the longer you wait, the more challenging (and costly) removing the foxtail will be. (Even if it turns out not to be a foxtail, knowing that for sure is worth the cost of the visit.)

Dog Allergies

Just like us, a dog can have seasonal allergies. Plant or grass pollen, dust mites, and certain household chemicals are the most common culprits for allergy-related dog sneezing. Dogs who have allergies often are more prone to skin and ear infections as well. Talk with your vet about the best ways to treat these allergies.

Dog Nasal and Respiratory Infections

Frequent sneezing sometimes signals an infection caused by a virus, bacteria or fungi. Viruses (including distemper and parainfluenza) can cause a dog to sneeze. Bordetella is one of the bacteria that causes kennel cough, as well as sneezing. Aspergillosis is a common nasal infection caused by inhalation of aspergillus fungus, which is basically everywhere. Other inhaled fungi, such as cryptococcus and blastomycosis, also affect a dog’s respiratory system and will cause sneezing. All of these are treatable and can be diagnosed (or ruled out) by a visit to the vet.

Nasal Mites

In rare cases, persistent sneezing can be caused by nasal mites. These tiny insects, about only one millimeter in size, are found in dirt, and dogs who dig with their noses may contract them this way. These mites, which can be very irritating to dogs, are contagious and require treatment. Your veterinarian may prescribe topical or oral medication to eliminate and prevent nasal mites.

Canine Nasal Cancer

A cancerous tumor in a dog’s nasal passage is sometimes the cause of excessive sneezing. Nasal cancer makes up from 1 to 2 percent of cancers in dogs and has an 80 percent malignancy rate. While, like most cancers, there’s no known single cause, it’s thought that this cancer has both environmental (second-hand cigarette smoke, for example) and genetic origins. Longer-snouted breeds like Collies and Dachshunds are the most susceptible. In addition to sneezing, symptoms of nasal tumors include difficulty breathing, noisy breathing, bloody nasal discharge, coughing, loud snoring, seizures and facial swelling. Needless to say, if your dog exhibits some or most of these symptoms, they should be checked out by your vet asap.

Canine Dental Problems

While it may not seem like an obvious cause, canine dental problems such as infected teeth or gums and abscesses can create an infection in the nasal cavities, causing a runny nose and sneezing.

Breeds Prone to Sneezing Fits

There are also structural reasons for some dogs’ snorting and sneezing. The nasal passages of brachycephalic breeds—short-muzzled types like Bulldogs, Pugs and Boston Terriers—are compressed, which leads to a fair amount of sneezing, snoring and snorting. In fact, dogs of these breeds can have a condition known as brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (BAOS); sneezing is one of the symptoms associated with BAOS.

Don’t ignore these symptoms

If your sneezing dog has nasal swelling, a persistent runny nose or nose bleeds, or is pawing at their nose, there’s likely to be an underlying reason. Have your vet check them out without delay.

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Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bark for 20 years. She also edited the best-selling anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot.