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Why Is My Dog Honking?

Don’t panic: It’s called reverse sneezing, and in most cases, it’s nothing to worry about.

by Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV
Updated June 21, 2022
Dog sneezing on dog bed
Samantha Gehrmann / Stocksy

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You’re hanging out with your dog when they suddenly start making a weird honking sound as though they’re trying to hack something up. This odd noise understandably may lead you to think that your dog is having trouble breathing, or they’re choking and in grave danger. These episodes are often followed by a warp-speed drive to the ER where we (veterinarians) generally assess a happy dog wagging their tail, giving us a look like, “Not sure what all the fuss is about, but boy, that sure was a fun car ride!” 

That strange honking noise is called reverse sneezing, and it’s usually harmless. It happens to many dogs and rarely requires medical treatment. Still nervous? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know. 

What Is Reverse Sneezing?

Also known as inspiratory paroxysmal respiration, reverse sneezing in dogs is caused by a muscle spasm at the back of a dog’s mouth where it meets the throat. This spasm, which lasts around 30 seconds, causes a temporary narrowing of the opening of the trachea, making it difficult for the dog to inhale.

Lori Teller, DVM, an associate professor in the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) says: “The dog may stand very still with their front legs and neck extended. You will notice their chest and abdomen rapidly moving in and out.”

Reverse sneezing in dogs is a condition that usually does not need any treatment. It is called reverse sneezing because it sounds a bit like a dog “inhaling sneezes,” “snorting backwards,” "huffing cough," or "honking cough." These backward sneezing episodes are short-lived and usually resolved by the time you get to the vet’s office, leaving us veterinarians to (embarrassingly) try to mimic the noise in the exam room. 

What Causes Reverse Sneezing?

The most common cause of reverse sneezing is an irritation of the soft palate and throat that results in a spasm. The dog’s neck will stretch outward and the chest will expand during the spasm as it tries harder to inhale. The trachea narrows during this time, and it’s hard to get the normal amount of air into the lungs. All of these actions together result in the disturbing display of a reverse sneeze.

What are some other causes of reverse sneezing in dogs? Anything that irritates the throat and leads to a spasm, including:

  • excitement

  • eating or drinking

  • exercise intolerance

  • pulling on a leash

  • mites

  • foreign bodies caught in the throat

  • perfumes and environmental irritants such as household chemicals

  • viruses

  • pollen, allergies, and post-nasal drip

Further evaluation by a veterinarian should be pursued if reverse sneezing becomes a frequent occurrence — there may be a treatable, underlying cause of the episodes, such as mites or allergies. In many cases, however, the cause cannot be identified.

How To Treat Reverse Sneezing In Dogs

Reverse sneezing rarely requires treatment. When the sneezing stops, the spasm is over. If the episode continues beyond a few seconds, massaging your dog’s throat can help stop the spasm. Also, it can help to cover their nostrils for a quick moment, which makes your dog swallow and helps clear out the irritation.

“During an episode, try speaking in a soothing voice while gently massaging your dog’s throat,” suggests Teller. “You can also gently blow in the dog’s face to make them swallow or gently open the dog’s mouth and press down on the tongue to alleviate the spasm.” 

Some dogs have these episodes their entire lives, while others develop the condition only as they age. In most dogs, however, the spasm is an occasional and temporary problem that goes away on its own, needing no treatment and leaving the dog with no aftereffects.

Are Certain Dog Breeds Prone To Reverse Sneezing?

Yes, some dogs are more likely to experience reverse sneezing. Brachycephalic dogs (flat-faced dog breeds such as Pugs, Boxers and Shih Tzus) by nature have elongated soft palates, which can cause them to reverse sneeze more often. These dog breeds will occasionally suck the elongated palate into the throat while inhaling, causing reverse sneezing. Beagles, Yorkies and other small dogs are also particularly prone to this honking cough, possibly because they have smaller throats.

Worried about your cat? Don’t be. Cats rarely experience reverse sneezing. That said, if you ever notice the signs of reverse sneezing in your cat, take them to the vet ASAP.

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Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.