Why do dogs keep sneezing and when should you be concerned? We’ve got the answers in today’s dog health guide.
If you’ve ever seen your dog – or any dog, really – sneeze, you know it’s surprisingly funny and cute.
But why do dogs sneeze? Most of the time, sneezing is a harmless reflex or a rather amusing attempt at communication.
However, sometimes sneezing can also be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition or problem.
In this article, we’ll take a close look at sneezing dogs, as it were, and consider when sneezing may be a cause for concern.
Why is my dog sneezing?
You may notice your dog sneezes more often during playtime, or goes into a sneezing fit when meeting another dog or a new person. Interestingly, it seems that these ‘play-sneezes’ are a deliberate means of communication.
But why do dogs sneeze when excited or playful?
So far, there’s no definitive answer. The dominant theory on the topic is that it’s their way of communicating that they don’t pose a threat, and showing that they’re happy and have a positive attitude.
By play-sneezing, dogs may express cheerfulness and show that they don’t have negative intentions. When play-fighting, for instance, a sneeze could be the dog’s way of ‘calming’ the situation and saying, ‘hey, don’t worry, I’m just playing!’.
Many behaviourists believe that play-sneezing is not just a signal for humans. Dogs communicate in this way with other dogs, too – a play-sneeze sends a calming signal in tense situations. Dogs sneezing at each other are just being friendly.
Sometimes, then, a sneezing dog is simply a happy dog! Research even suggests that some dogs fake sneezes on purpose to initiate playtime or draw your attention.
If you observe your dog carefully, you’ll notice that play-sneezes are often more shallow than ‘real’ sneezes. They can seem like something between a snort and a sneeze.
You’ve surely noticed that there are substances and smells that make you sneeze. For example, ground pepper is a definite sneeze-trigger for most people. Due to its chemical composition, it acts as an irritant and causes a sneeze reflex.
Just like humans, dogs sometimes sneeze as a result of coming into contact with an irritant. Keep in mind that your dog’s sense of smell is at least ten thousand times as strong as yours (yes, really!), so dogs detect plenty of irritants that we wouldn’t notice.
Common irritants that cause sneezing in dogs include pollen, dust, smoke, and other substances found in small particles, as well as strong smells – like chemicals, perfume, or smoke.
Foreign object blockage
If you suddenly notice your dog sneezing a lot, it could be because of a physical irritant inside his nose rather than due to particles in the air.
Dogs explore their surroundings all the time, thoroughly sniffing everything that sparks their interest.
Sometimes, it so happens that they accidentally inhale something in the process – such as a small blade of grass, a clump of dirt, or a grain of sand. This causes a sneezing reflex, as the dog attempts to expel the object from its nose.
If the object is large or too deeply lodged to be removed by sneezing, it may block part of the dog’s respiratory system.
This kind of problem is called ‘foreign object blockage’, and requires an immediate visit to the vet. Alongside excessive sneezing, nasal discharge and pawing at the face and nose can indicate foreign body blockage.
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Just like humans, dogs can suffer from allergies. In some cases, these may cause the dog to sneeze.
Common canine allergens include fleas (specifically flea saliva), dust mites, mould spores, and pollens. Dogs can also have an allergic reaction to certain ingredients in their food or to medication. In addition, seasonal allergies – or hay fever – affect dogs just as they do humans.
It’s important to remember that if your dog is allergic to something in his environment, sneezing won’t be the only symptom.
Allergic reactions that affect the respiratory system will also include a runny nose, coughing, and wheezing alongside possible excessive sneezing.
Furthermore, sneezing and other respiratory reactions are not even the most common symptoms of allergies in dogs. Instead, skin problems – such as itching – are much more likely to occur.
Canine nasal mites are tiny parasites that live in the sinuses of an affected dog. Not all dogs have them, and those that do should receive veterinary treatment.
The irritation that the mites cause within the dog’s nasal sinuses can cause him to sneeze excessively.
Mites can affect dogs of every age, sex, and breed, and spread very easily from one dog to another. Luckily, the condition is very straightforward for vets to diagnose and treat.
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Viruses and infections
It may come as a surprise to some, but dogs can come down with the common cold just like us. Furthermore, they’re also susceptible to the canine influenza virus – the dog equivalent of our flu.
These viruses spread from dog to dog (and sometimes to and from cats) and can cause sneezing, among other symptoms.
Canine colds present with coughing, nasal discharge (runny or congested nose), and watery eyes. Meanwhile, canine influenza usually involves the same symptoms, but with the addition of a fever and lethargy.
The lesser-known canine distemper virus can also cause sneezing, alongside a runny nose, vomiting and/or diarrhoea, a runny nose, salivation, and weight loss.
If you think your dog may have a virus, take him to the vet as soon as possible. If you can, call ahead to let them know about your dog’s conditions may be contagious.
This will enable the vet to take the necessary precautions to prevent other animals in the clinic from contracting the illness.
Some infections (most notably a sinus infection, or sinusitis, as well as a tooth infection) can also cause dogs to sneeze more often. These also cause similar symptoms, frequently including a fever, and require immediate vet treatment.
Nasal tumours are the most serious possible cause of increased sneezing in dogs. This form of cancer develops in the nasal cavity and obstructs airways, leading to breathing problems.
Apart from sneezing, symptoms of tumours in the nose can include nasal discharge, nosebleeds (or discharge mixed with blood), weight loss, coughing, noisy breathing, and lethargy. Very occasionally, the dog will also present with neurological symptoms.
Luckily, nasal tumours happen very rarely in dogs. They account for approximately 1% of all canine cancers, so statistically it’s extremely unlikely that your dog suffers from this illness.
Some research suggests that environmental factors can increase the risk of dogs developing nasal tumours.
In particular, living in urban environments (where air pollution is much higher than in the countryside) and breathing in second-hand tobacco smoke are potential risk factors.
Though there’s no substantial evidence to support this claim, it’s believed that long-nosed breeds are more likely to develop this form of canine cancer. Also, it seems to be more prevalent in medium- to large-sized dogs.
Naturally, a series of visits to the vet will be required to diagnose nasal cancer.
A CT scan is usually enough to make a diagnosis. Treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy can be effective against canine nasal tumours.
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Brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (BAOS)
Alongside viruses, certain breeds are more likely to suffer from breathing difficulties due to genetic predispositions. These can lead to noisy breathing, snoring, and sneezing.
Brachycephalic breeds are particularly prone to these issues due to their genetic makeup and the shape of their snouts. There are twenty-four breeds in this group, including Pugs, Boxers, English and French Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, and Shih Tzus, among others.
The respiratory condition common to these breeds is called brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (BAOS).
The term covers four different upper airway abnormalities that make breathing more difficult for the dog.
Though frequent sneezing may occur with BAOS, the primary symptoms are loud, laboured, shallow breathing, narrowed nostrils, and reverse sneezing.
If you’re concerned your dog may have BAOS, consult a veterinarian. You can also conduct some research at home.
This Cambridge Veterinary School website contains a guide with example videos involving the breathing noises of BAOS-affected dogs.
Reverse sneezing – what’s going on?
We’ve mentioned reverse sneezing a couple of times so far. What is it and why does it happen?
With a ‘normal’ sneeze, a dog forcefully expels air out through the airways. As the name suggests, a reverse sneeze is the opposite: rapidly breathing air inwards.
While sneezing usually happens just once or twice in a row, reverse sneezing is a series of air intakes that resembles hyperventilation.
It may look as if your dog is gasping or choking, and each episode can last even up to a minute.
Although it looks quite alarming, reverse sneezing is not dangerous in itself. It’s typically a reaction to allergens, irritants, a small foreign object in the dog’s nasal passage, or mites.
If it happens very occasionally, it’s likely nothing to worry about, just like normal sneezing.
However, it might be a cause for concern if your dog starts to reverse sneeze frequently – definitely worth a visit to the vet just to make sure everything’s okay.
When should I be concerned about my dog sneezing?
Though some of the sneezing causes outlined above may sound scary, it’s important to remember that occasional sneezing is perfectly normal in dogs – just as it is in humans. A sneeze or two from your dog every once in a while is nothing to worry about.
However, there are certain circumstances in which sneezing could be a cause for concern. Consult a veterinarian if:
- Your dog suddenly started sneezing more than usual and you can’t seem to find an explanation. A single sneezing fit is probably harmless (most likely a reaction to an irritant), but repeated bouts of sneezing over time could indicate a medical issue.
- Sneezing is accompanied by other symptoms – such as unusual discharge from the nose, nosebleeds, or pawing at their face or nose. Keep an eye out for any signals that your dog may be experiencing discomfort – such as agitation, yelping, sensitivity to touch, grumpiness, apathy, or any other behaviour you find unusual.
- The sneezing dog is very young or very old. Puppies and older dogs are more susceptible to illnesses of all kinds.
- The dog has a compromised immune system for any reason. Recent illnesses or surgeries, as well as cancer and hereditary disorders can all cause your dog to be at higher risk of getting ill.
- Your other dogs begin sneezing more often, too. If you have several dogs and they all start sneezing more frequently, it’s likely that they have nasal mites.
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What should I do if my dog keeps sneezing?
Before you start worrying, make sure that your dog’s really sneezing – not play-sneezing or faking sneezes for attention.
These shallow, snort-like noises are within the bounds of normal behaviour for some dogs. See if there’s a pattern to your dog’s sneezing: if he sneezes more when excited or happy, he’s probably play-sneezing.
Otherwise, observe the dog closely for any other symptoms, unusual behaviours, or worrying signals.
If you’re in any doubt at all as to your dog’s health, it’s always best to visit a vet – even if you think you’re exaggerating. Better safe than sorry, as they say – even if it’s just for your own peace of mind.
If it turns out that your dog’s sneezing could be the result of an allergy, a vet may be able to help you eliminate some possible allergens from your dog’s environment and/or diet.
What if there are no medical issues but the dog keeps sneezing? Try to remove any possible irritants from your pup’s surroundings – anything with a strong smell, like perfumes or incense.
Changing your household cleaning supplies (sprays and detergents) to a different brand, preferably with a milder smell, could also help. Lastly, make sure that areas of the house accessible to your dog are free of dust.
Hopefully, you now have a pretty good idea about the most likely reasons why your dog sneezes. It happens to everyone from time to time!
Unless you notice any other unusual signals, there’s no need to worry about your dog sneezing occasionally. If you’re still concerned, consult a vet – they’ll help you figure out what’s going on and explain whether any action needs to be taken.