Every dog sneezes once in a while, and more than likely, it’s just adorable. But if your dog’s sneezing has become chronic, you may be wondering why. You may also be wondering if you should be concerned. The honking noises that come with the inhalations called reverse sneezes can be particularly troubling.
But should you be worried if your dog is sneezing, or should you reach for your camera and try to get a snap of the next one?
Like many symptoms, a canine sneeze needs to be considered in context since there may be various causes for your dog’s sneezing.
So, Why Is My Dog Sneezing?
The physiology of a canine sneeze is similar to a human’s in most respects. When something enters the nose, it might irritate the nasal passages or the pharynx at the back of the throat. The lungs will then release a rush of air to expel it.
In some cases, just like with humans, sneezing can be a sign of kennel cough, a kind of canine flu. But mostly, it’s merely a response to irritants or a type of communication owners tend to overlook.
In fact, there are quite a few reasons your dog might be sneezing. So, let’s go through them one at a time.
Five Reasons A Dog Might Be Sneezing
If your dog is sneezing more than usual, there may be plenty of culprits in the home and garden environment.
Common causes of sneezing include the smell of anything that irritates their sensitive noses. This may include:
- Cigarette smoke
- Strong Cleaning products
On occasion, a foreign object may become lodged or stuck in your dog’s nose when it’s sniffing about; the way dogs love to do.
It could be a tiny blade of grass or anything that can fit inside the nasal cavity or trachea.
The most typical sign of a foreign object is pawing at one side of the face or discharge from only one nostril.
You can remove the foreign object yourself with a pair of tweezers if you can see it, but if something is blocking the airway, you will need a vet for an inhaled foreign body procedure.
Dogs sneezing at play is a common sight. Bouts of sneezing while playing, or “play sneezing,” are thought to be a form of communication. It may be a way for dogs to tell each other that they are having a good time, and it’s all in good fun.
On the other hand, remember that when dogs are playing, they are often kicking up grass and dust, which might irritate their airways. This may be an underlying cause of play sneezing.
Another possibility is that they often curl their lips while pretending to growl. This action may stimulate the sneeze response.
Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that it is a common form of communication.
3. Communication and Attention
Sneezing as communication is one of the most ignored signals you may be receiving from your dog. We all know wagging tails (usually) mean happy mutts. But are they trying to tell us something when they sneeze?
A YouTube video by MatherDMONETWO appears to show a Pit Bull nodding or shaking his head when asked a series of questions by his owner. He seems to shake his head for “no” and nod for “yes.”
If you examine the video with the talking Pit Bull, you may notice something interesting. Often, when he nods for “yes,” his nod looks a lot like a small fake sneeze.
There is some scientific evidence that a little sneeze might be your dog’s way of saying ‘yes!’ or ‘I agree.’ In fact, a study on African Wild Dogs uncovered similar behavior.
A pack rallying together who engaged in a lot of sneezing would typically set out to hunt. On the other hand, if not many pack members were sneezing, they tended to all take a nap instead.
This suggests that deep in the canine genome, a sneeze might still mean “yes! That’s a great idea! Count me in!”
So, if you grab the leash or ask your dog if they want a treat, you may sometimes see a small sneeze of excitement and approval.
But sneezing isn’t always done to communicate. The AKC argues that dogs “fake sneeze” to get your attention or to encourage you to play.
The “fake sneeze” can also be a learned behavior. Sometimes dogs do something unintentionally that elicits a positive response from their owners, such as cooing and cuddles. The dog may then periodically display the same behavior to try to get the same response.
In short, if your dog sneezes on you, it could be for many reasons, but it is often for getting your attention and encouraging you to play.
4. Excellent Sense of Smell
Dogs have a sense of smell estimated to be between 10 000 to 100 000 times stronger than a human’s. This makes their noses far more easily irritated by pollutants or inhalants and can cause sneezing whenever there is something aggravating in the air.
Short-faced breeds like Pugs or Bulldogs are also more sensitive to mild irritants than their longer-nosed counterparts.
Since deodorants, smoke, or perfume can all have very strong smells, consider an air purifier in the home if the problem is chronic.
5. Health Problems
Unfortunately, dog sneezing can signal various physical conditions, especially if it comes with other issues. Here are some of the health concerns and symptoms to keep an eye out for.
Colds and viruses
Like humans, dogs can catch the flu.
The canine influenza virus, also known as dog flu or kennel cough, is caused by the transmission of pathogens in respiratory droplets through sneezing, coughing, or sharing bowls or other items.
For this reason, it is most often seen in places where dogs are crowded in small areas, such as shelters, grooming parlors, or kennels.
Symptoms of dog flu include:
- A forceful cough, sometimes sounding like a goose honk,
- Reverse sneezing (discussed below),
- Normal sneezing
- Runny nose
- Eye discharge
Kennel cough can be avoided with good hygiene practices, such as disinfecting bowls and surfaces and isolating infected dogs.
Usually, it is not severe, and dogs recover well if they get it.
The death rate for dog flu is less than 10% and it mostly only affects dogs with compromised immune systems or comorbidities.
Luckily, a highly recommended vaccine exists for both strains of the virus.
Nasal mites are relatively uncommon but can be a cause of sneezing. The MSD Veterinary Manual describes the following symptoms of a nasal mite infestation:
- High-pitched, noisy breathing
- Head shaking
- Difficulty breathing
- The apparent loss of smell
- Facial itching
- Nasal discharge
- Reverse sneezing
Like dog flu, nasal mites are transmitted directly or indirectly between dogs. If a vet diagnoses nasal mites, they will probably prescribe an anti-parasitic medication that works about 85% of the time.
However, complications can arise if the mites have caused an infection, which brings us to the next sneezing culprit
Yes, dogs can get nasal infections. Rhinitis and sinusitis are two of the most common upper respiratory tract infections in canines.
Rhinitis is when the nose’s mucous membranes become inflamed or damaged, whereas sinusitis is the inflammation of the lining in the sinuses.
- Struggling to breath
- Breathing through the mouth.
Nasal infections can be caused by underlying issues such as mites, viruses, bacteria, or fungi, and your vet will need to do a thorough examination to find the underlying problem.
Sometimes an infected tooth could be the cause, but sadly, it could sometimes be something even more serious.
The MSD Vet Manual reports that tumors of the nose account for 1 – 2 % of all cancerous masses in dogs. For a change, longer nose breeds are more susceptible than shorter-nosed breeds..
Tumors in the nose are usually severe and need aggressive treatment, including radiation. Unfortunately, they are rarely benign.
The first sign to watch out for is a nasal discharge that contains pus, blood, or mucous.
It typically starts on one side but often spreads to the second nostril.
A dog with a tumor will sneeze every so often, have nose bleeds, and might start snoring. If the condition is not caught early, deformities in the mouth and face can occur, and the eyeballs might begin to protrude.
For this reason, runny noses, especially those with suspicious-looking discharge, are best taken to the vet straight away.
Thankfully not every medical reason for sneezing as serious as a tumor. Allergies do sometimes cause a few achoos.
But, not always.
We all love spring, but those of us that struggle with hay fever may dread the so-called “pollen apocalypse” or “pollen tsunami” the media loves to warn us of.
Pollen can cause allergies in dogs, but usually, it is not responsible for sneezing.
Instead, pollen gets stuck on their fur, paw pads, or in the ears and can cause itching, licking, chewing, and scratching.
But what about other allergies?
A dog might be allergic to many things, ranging from the saliva in flea bites to ingredients in their food. Like pollen, the inhalants that typically cause sneezing and hay fever symptoms in humans also affect dogs.
An inhalant allergy is called atopy. Common atopies include reactions to dust mites, dead skin cells, tree and grass pollens (ragweed), molds, and mildew.
However, most atopies result in itchy or inflamed skin. In some cases, though, they may cause rhinitis, which would, in turn, result in sneezing along with the symptoms mentioned above.
Other ailments that often afflict short-nosed breeds, in particular, is reverse sneezing.
Reverse sneezing is an upper airway issue that happens when the soft palate at the back of the dog’s throat is irritated.
This may cause a spasm, and the dog will likely make scary sounds, something like a dying goose.
The dog will expand their chest and extend their neck as they try to inhale.
Luckily, if reverse sneezing is happening without any other symptoms, it usually does not require treatment. As soon as the spasm is over, the dog should recover quickly.
Owners can help their dogs by massaging the throat or covering their nostrils to force them to swallow. If this doesn’t help, you can try opening the dog’s mouth and pushing the tongue down to open the airways.
Common causes of reverse sneezing are:
- Eating and drinking too fast
- Pulling on the leash—why a no-pull harness is recommended to prevent strain on the neck.
- Irritating inhalants such as mites, dust, or perfumes
- Elongated soft palates can cause reverse sneezing. They usually occur in brachycephalic dogs (short-nosed dogs) such as Pugs, Boxers, Rottweilers, Shih Tzus, or Boston Terriers.
Usually, dogs prone to reverse sneezing live relatively normal lives, although the owner may need to take some precautions to avoid the triggers.
However, if the problem is chronic or presents along with other symptoms, a vet should be consulted.
Canine tracheal collapse
Another common breed-related problem which is associated with sneezing is tracheal collapse.
This happens when the rings in the windpipe collapse in on themselves, usually because of weak cartilage.
It is most common in small breeds such as the Chihuahua or the Teacup Miniature Pinscher, most likely because of their fragile necks.
Once again, this emphasizes the need for harnesses on small breeds rather than collars that can exacerbate trachea damage.
The tracheal collapse usually happens when a dog is over-excited or over-exerting itself. Panting makes the issue worse and results in the same honking and neck extension we see in reverse sneezing.
When the dog calms down, the problem should resolve itself. On the other hand, if it happens too much, it can cause complications such as inflammation.
Besides breed, some factors can make the symptoms worse. These are:
- Anesthesia during the insertion of an endotracheal tube
- Kennel cough
- Irritating inhalants
- Enlarged hearts
If your dog’s tracheal collapse episodes seem to be getting worse or is presenting along with other symptoms, consult your vet immediately.
When Does a Dog Sneeze Mean Something Serious?
A sneeze on its own is nothing to worry about, but if your dog begins to sneeze excessively, it may be time to take your dog to the vet, especially if the sneezing is accompanied by tracheal collapse or a lot of reverse sneezing.
Other signs that it’s time to take your dog to the vet include:
- A bluish tinge to the gums
- Any nasal discharge
- Pawing at the face or rubbing the nose against the ground
- Runny eyes
- Difficulty breathing
- Or any of the other symptoms listed above under various health concerns.
In short, the odd sneeze or two can be a cute way of communicating pleasure or a response to something strong in the air, like a teenager overdoing it with the Axe Body Spray.
If the sneezing becomes severe, it is usually accompanied by other symptoms.
Reverse sneezing and tracheal collapse are upsetting for both dog and owner but are generally manageable conditions. Luckily, most of the time, the best thing to do if your dog sneezes is to say, “Bless you!”
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.
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