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Why Do Dogs Sneeze?

by Dana Mortensen
Reviewed by Catherine Barnette, DVM on 06.02.2020. Updated on 06.29.2020
Why Do Dogs Sneeze?

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Dogs sneeze for a variety of reasons. It could be a passing tickle, a sign of illness, or even an expression of excitement or joy. Since dogs can’t tell us how they’re feeling, it’s up to dog parents to sniff out the difference and know when veterinarian backup is needed.

Read on to learn more about what might cause dogs to sneeze, what’s considered excessive, and how to help if your dog keeps sneezing.

Dog Sneezing: Why it Happens

To understand dog sneezes, we first have to take a look at what happens inside your dog’s nose. A dog’s sense of smell is his most powerful sense. Dogs’ nasal passages are larger and better developed than those of humans, and scientists estimate their sense of smell is anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times better than ours (1).

Sneezing is a built-in reflex designed to protect dogs’ highly sensitive snouts from unwanted or harmful material. “A sneeze is triggered when an irritant enters a dog’s nose or pharynx — where the nasal passages meet the throat,” explains Dr. Lori Teller, clinical associate professor of telehealth at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Dogs forcefully expel air through the nose to clear the respiratory tract of foreign particles.” 

As with humans, dog sneezes are likely to create a little “spray” in the moment. Unfortunately, dogs can’t cover their noses—so it’s a good thing they’re so darn cute when they sneeze!

Causes of Dog Sneezing

close up of dog's nose

Just like people, dogs may sneeze for a variety of reasons. “In most cases, sneezing is a normal bodily function dogs use to clear their airways,” says Dr. Rachel Barrack, an integrative veterinarian and founder of Animal Acupuncture. “But if your dog is sneezing continuously, or if sneezing is occurring in combination with other symptoms of illness or discomfort, you should see your primary care veterinarian.”

A runny nose, itchiness, pawing at the snout, coughing, or changes in energy or appetite can be warning signs of something more serious, adds Barrack.

Let’s explore some of the most common causes of sneezing in dogs. 

Environmental Factors

Temporary bouts of sneezing can be brought on by environmental triggers like dry air, perfume, dust, or chemicals. These sneezing episodes generally resolve quickly on their own once the irritant is no longer in the dog’s environment or the dog is removed from the trigger (2).

Foreign Bodies

As active sniffers, it’s not uncommon for a dog to inhale a small object or particle: dust, pollen, a blade of grass, a foxtail, a hair, or a burr. In most cases, a few sneezes will do the job to clear the offending object from the nose, and the episode will pass quickly.  

However, foreign bodies that get stuck need veterinary intervention. “If there is something stuck in the nasal passage, dogs will rub their noses or heads against furniture or the ground, or repeatedly paw at their faces,” says Barrack. “This can sometimes lead to a more severe infection if the rubbing causes the object to become lodged more deeply in the nasal canal.”

If the sneezing or rubbing behavior continues for more than a few hours, says Barrack, or if it is causing any kind of discharge, call your primary care veterinarian (or an emergency veterinarian, if your primary care veterinarian’s office is closed). 

A note about foxtails: These tall, reed-like weeds are common in the American west and are particularly treacherous for dogs. “They dry out in the summer and spread small, hair-like spikes that can be carried quite a distance by the wind and wildlife,” says Dr. Michele Drake of the Drake Center for Veterinary Medicine. “If a dog inhales one of the fibers, they can very easily become lodged in dogs’ nasal passages and will cause them to sneeze uncontrollably and paw or rub at their snouts.” 

If you suspect your dog has come into contact with foxtail fibers, it’s important to contact the veterinarian for help immediately, since it can often require surgery to remove them. 

Nasal Mites

Nasal mites are tiny parasites that your dog can catch from other dogs. These tiny pests can be difficult to spot in and around your dog’s nose. Their presence becomes apparent as they reproduce and cause irritation in the nasal lining (3).   

Although these parasites are uncommon, frequent sneezing accompanied by a runny nose or bloody discharge can indicate the presence of nasal mites. Your veterinarian can diagnose nasal mites and prescribe medication.

A Cold or Virus

Sneezing alone is not a red flag for illness. But when accompanied by a loss of appetite, lethargy, fever, coughing, or runny eyes or nose, your pup may have a cold or virus. 

“Always take your dog to the veterinarian if they have any combination of these symptoms since these signs can indicate a viral or bacterial infection that will only resolve with medication,” recommends Teller.

Kennel cough and canine influenza are especially contagious and can lead to pneumonia. Until your veterinarian has confirmed a diagnosis, it’s best to keep your dog away from other animals if you think your dog may be sick.

Allergies

“Although sneezing can be a symptom of allergies in dogs, it is not the most common,” says Dr. Jamie Richardson, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary. “Allergy-related sneezing will appear with other, more dramatic symptoms—itchiness or chronic ear infections being the most common.” 

If you suspect your dog’s sneezing fit is the result of allergies, Richardson suggests consulting your veterinarian to identify specific allergic triggers and devise a treatment plan.

Dental Disease

Untreated dental issues may cause inflammation of the nose (known as rhinitis). The roots of a dog’s teeth reach all the way to the thin wall of tissue that separates the nose from the oral cavity. An abscessed tooth or gum disease may extend into the nasal passages, leading to inflammation and sneezing (4).

Tumors

Nasal tumors are not common, but they can develop in older dogs. Persistent sneezing is one symptom of a tumor, but there are usually other troubling symptoms, like labored breathing, swelling of the nose or face, or colored discharge (like pus and blood) from the dog’s nose (5).

Fungus

Fungus is everywhere in our environment. Just as humans can sometimes contract fungal infections, so can dogs. 

According to Dr. Joseph Taboada, professor of small animal internal medicine at Louisiana State University, School of Veterinary Medicine, Aspergillus, Cryptococcus, and Blastomycoses are the three fungal infections most likely to result in a nasal or sinus infection.

Why Do Dogs Sneeze When Playing?

dogs playing together outside

Dogs frequently sneeze when they play. These “play sneezes” are shallower and shorter than a “true” sneeze that originates from deep in the respiratory tract, says Dr. Karyn L. Collier, medical director for wellness medicine at Saint Francis Veterinary of South Jersey. Play sneezes sound more like a sharp snuffle. 

They are a normal, safe behavior signaling friendliness and fun, and is no cause for concern.

Collier explains that play-sneezing may be a form of body language dogs use to express that they’re having a great time playing. During rougher play sessions, they might sneeze to signal that this wrestling is all in good fun, and in no way aggressive or hostile. 

It’s also possible that the increased activity and facial expressions of a happy, excited pooch change the way air moves through the nasal passages. “When dogs are excited or playing, they might wrinkle their noses, curl their lips, or breathe more heavily,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, a small animal and exotic veterinarian. “This can affect airflow or change the rhythm of their breathing or cause them to stir up dirt or dust.” 

Play sneezing can translate to other exciting moments in your dog’s life. Many dogs will sneeze several times when you come home after work, when guests come to the door, or before a much-anticipated ride in the car. It’s a common and adorable canine quirk.

What is Reverse Sneezing?

A reverse sneeze is a respiratory spasm, similar to a regular sneeze. But instead of forcing air out, a reverse sneeze causes dogs to suck in air rapidly and repeatedly through the mouth while pulling the head back and curling the lips inward.  

Reverse sneezing can look and sound quite alarming, like a cross between a honk and a gag. It may look as though your dog is loudly gasping for air. But, like a regular sneeze, most reverse sneezes are relatively common and usually benign. Usually, this happens in response to a tickle in the back of a dog’s throat. 

“Irritation or inflammation in the front part of the nasal passage leads to sneezing; but if the trigger is further back, closer to the throat, dogs will usually ‘reverse sneeze’ instead,” explains Dr. Lori Teller, clinical associate professor of telehealth at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. 

Excessive Sneezing in Dogs: Is it a Cause for Concern?

dog pawing at nose

A couple of sneezes a day or a passing sneezing episode from your dog aren’t a cause for concern, assures Teller. However, she says, if you notice any of the additional symptoms below, check with your veterinarian to make sure there isn’t something more serious going on. 

  • Pawing at the snout
  • Rubbing the snout on the ground or furniture
  • Discharge (mucus, blood or pus)
  • Watery eyes
  • Itching (body, ears or paws)
  • Labored breathing
  • Bluish gums
  • Lethargy
  • Change in appetite
  • Swelling around the snout

If your dog seems ill, keep him away from other pets until your veterinarian can confirm he is not contagious, reminds Teller.

To understand what’s causing your dog to sneeze, a veterinarian will do a complete physical exam. “They will listen to your dog’s lungs to see if the condition is spreading to the lower airway from the upper airway,” says Dr. Kristiina Ruotsalo, a veterinary pathologist. “They’ll examine the dog’s teeth and gums to rule out dental problems. They’ll use a small flashlight to look inside your dog’s nose for mites, tumors, or foreign bodies that may be causing the sneezing.”  

She explains that sedation is sometimes needed to see more deeply into the nasal passage. It’s also possible that your veterinarian will order blood work if an infection or illness is suspected.  

If allergies are to blame for your dog’s sneezing, your vet may recommend medication or a diet change to see if symptoms subside.

What to Do if Your Dog Is Sneezing

French Bulldog sneezing

As a pet parent, you know your dog best. If your dog starts sneezing, keep an eye out for other symptoms or behaviors such as rubbing or pawing. Mild sneezing episodes will usually pass on their own. You can try giving your dog water to clear anything from the back of the throat and to reset their breathing if they’re overexcited.

“If you think something may be irritating your dog’s nose, use a small flashlight to get a better look,” suggests Ochoa. “Saline drops can sometimes help to moisten dry nasal passages and rinse away irritants. Bring your dog to the veterinarian if you see any mites or an object that can’t be removed or worked out safely on its own.”

If you suspect allergies, an antihistamine can help, says Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, a veterinary consultant and practice partner at The Animal Center—but she warns against giving your dog any medications without consulting your veterinarian first. 

“It’s unwise to assume that drugs are safe just because they can be purchased without a prescription. Human and canine doses are different, so you need to ask about the correct amount to administer, and you’ll want to make sure the medication is compatible with your dog’s medical history.”  

Both Ochoa and Buzhardt recommend consulting a veterinarian if your dog is sneezing for a prolonged period or if other symptoms are present.

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