We don’t get this call often, but when we do we can never be certain from the owner’s description over the phone. We got the same call twice in one night a week ago, each description different, but the same problem. I always feel badly when someone has to come in and pay for an office call and physical exam, only to be informed that it’s nothing to worry about, but, on the other hand, that’s far better than the alternative. When people come in for an emergency visit and realize that what they thought was possibly a potentially fatal choking or coughing fit is actually a benign and perfectly commonplace episode, they are often both embarrassed and relieved. Those of you who are familiar with this behavior will recognize it for what it is. Some of you may exclaim, “My cat (dog) does that. So that’s what that’s called.” The ‘reverse sneeze,’ as it is known, looks for all intents and purposes as if it could be a life-threatening condition, but it’s not.
The ‘reverse sneeze,’ is a temporary spasm of the nasopharynx that occurs in both dogs and cats and is often brought on by a sudden irritation or other stimulus. Smoke, dust, fumes, fragrances, and other airborne substances can and often do cause irritation or stimulation to the back of the throat resulting in this coughing/choking/sneezing/retching type of behavior. When describing it to my clients I usually compare it to the contortions that you or I go through when trying to hack up a hair that is caught in the back of our throat. I had a Bassett Hound years ago that reverse sneezed so severely on one occasion that he actually fell over. I have never heard of the condition being fatal even in dogs that are quite debilitated such as those suffering from severe heart disease, although I suppose there is certainly a slight possibility. Animals that experience the reverse sneeze often have the episodes with some frequency although I have seen cases where the owner has come in with a ten or twelve year old pet and have never seen it before. If your pet has frequent episodes of reverse sneezing, you should check out the environment and try to evaluate for what may be the inciting cause. Sometimes you will find a cause such as a room deodorizer, hair spray, deodorant, or other aerosol spray, or perhaps the pet has been sleeping among the dust bunnies under your bed. In rare instances there may be another cause, sometimes treatable with antibiotics or some allergy meds, but most of the time the problem tends to be more of an environmental issue and is self-limiting. If you are still concerned about your pet’s episodes, next time it occurs get out your phone and shoot some video and take it to your veterinarian to demonstrate what is happening.
The best verbal description in the world for this phenomenon just doesn’t do it justice so, thanks to the internet and the power of Youtube, we can present it live and in person for your enjoyment. These are not my videos, so I want to extend my thanks to those who have provided these clips. Sometimes a video is worth far more than the proverbial thousand words.