Posted on May 1, 2016
I recently received a phone call from my aunt who was wondering why Pirate, her beloved Tibetan Terrier, had been sneezing for a couple of days. Pirate appeared to be normal in every other way. We discussed potential causes for his sneezing.
I explained to my aunt that only rarely do colds, allergies, and bacterial infections cause sneezing in dogs. Canine colds, aka, upper respiratory viruses, tend to trigger coughing rather than sneezing. And dogs with allergies suffer from itchy skin and ear problems far more than sneezing. Bacterial infections within the nose are exceedingly rare unless they arise on the heels of an underlying primary problem such as a growth or foreign body within the nose.
So, what are the most common causes of canine sneezing? Here’s the list of things I always consider.
Foxtails and other foreign bodies
Foxtails are the most common cause of sneezing for dogs who live west of the Mississippi. After the seed heads of foxtail plants dry in late spring and early summer they are easily and commonly snuffed up into the noses of dogs who like to sniff around. And, what dog doesn’t like to sniff around?
Because the foxtail plant awns are pronged much like fishhooks, once inhaled into the nose, they cannot be sneezed back out. Removal requires special instrumentation that is inserted into the nasal passageways of the sneezing dog. In the vast majority of cases successful removal relies on the dog being under general anesthesia.
Persistent sneezing is the hallmark symptom of a nasal foxtail. A bloody nose may result from irritation of the delicate tissue lining the nasal passageway or from inadvertent nose banging caused by violent sneezing. Over time, foxtails that are not removed result in chronic nasal discharge along with a fungal and/or bacterial infection within the nose. No fun!
Why did I mention the caveat of living west of the Mississippi? This is where these nasty foxtail plants happen to grow. (Why do you think I moved from California to North Carolina?!) There are a couple of ways to prevent nasal foxtails. The most full proof method is to avoid taking your dog anywhere near foxtails from late spring through mid summer. If foxtails are mowed and left on the ground, they can remain a hazard even later into the season. Another prevention option is the clever OutFox Field Guard™, a net like device that encircles the dog’s head.
Nasal foreign bodies other than foxtails are truly rare and are usually the result of a dog’s nose being in the wrong place at the wrong time or an inquisitive young child exploring all the many places small objects can go.
Nasal tumors are all too common in older large breed dogs, particularly those with longer snouts such as German Shepherds and Collies. It is known that exposure to tobacco smoke can be a predisposing factor. Carcinomas and sarcomas are the two most common types of nasal tumors in dogs. While neither tends to metastasize (spread to other sites in the body), both expand locally and destroy normal nasal structures in the process. Chronic nasal discharge is the most common symptom of nasal cancer, but some affected dogs do exhibit sneezing.
The diagnosis is best made by a CT scan or MRI scan in conjunction with a biopsy of the abnormal tissue. The mainstay therapy for nasal tumors is radiation therapy. While not curative, treatment often results in a significant period of good quality time. The diagnosis and/or treatment of nasal cancer typically requires involvement of a veterinarian who specializes in internal medicine or oncology.
Just as nasal tumors are more common in long nosed breeds of dogs, so too are fungal infections within the nasal passageways and sinuses. The fungal species most commonly implicated is Aspergillus, spores of which are normally found in the environment. Aspergillus is considered to be “opportunistic” in that the organisms readily colonize on the heels of any sort of minor trauma within the nasal passageways. As the fungal infection spreads it destroys normal tissue.
The diagnosis is best made by specialized imaging studies (CT or MRI scan) in conjunction with collection of tissue samples from within the nose or sinus of an affected dog. Treatment involves infusion of antifungal medication into the nasal passageways and sinuses and/or long-term oral antifungal medication. As recommended for nasal tumors, involvement of a veterinary specialist is well advised for the diagnosis and management of fungal disease within the nose.
Nasal mites (Pneumonyssoides caninum) are teeny, tiny, almost microscopic little critters that thrive in the nasal passageways and sinuses of dogs. Boy oh boy, do they cause an itchy nose, and affected dogs typically exhibit lots of sneezing.
Visualizing the mites marching around in a dog’s nose is always cause for excitement. Not only do they look a bit surreal, seeing the mites confirms the diagnosis. Affecting a cure for nasal mites requires a dose or two of an anti-parasite medication. How does a dog acquire a nasal mite infection? Digging in the dirt face first is the most likely cause. Thus far, knock on wood, neither Nellie or Quinn, my two digger dogs pictured above, have acquired nasal mites.
Digging in the dirt
If your dogs love to dig the way my dogs love to dig, they will likely do some sneezing. Submerging ones entire head into a hole quite naturally forces some dirt and plant material into ones snout! The natural way to expel this stuff is by sneezing. Dirt-induced sneezing is typically transient, resolving within several minutes to an hour or two. As mentioned above, nasal mites can be a side effect of digging in the dirt and will produce sneezing that is more persistent.
For reasons that are unclear to me, some dogs sneeze when they become excited. This interesting phenomenon is far more common amongst small dog breeds. For some, simply asking, “Do you want to go for a walk?” can produce a barrage of sneezing. Excitement-induced sneezing is harmless unless the dog happens to be a nose banger in the process.
If it were up to me, reverse sneezing would have a different name. This is because it has absolutely nothing to do with sneezing. Rather, reverse sneezing is an overly dramatic response to a tickling sensation in the dog’s throat. It is the canine version of throat clearing. Dogs who are reverse sneezing assume a stiff posture with head and neck rigidly extended forward. This is accompanied by forceful, noisy inhalation and exhalation that can last for several seconds, even minutes. If reverse sneezing becomes more frequent or persistent, consultation with a veterinarian is warranted.
Do you have a canine sneezer on your hands? Now that you’ve read this information, what do you think might be the cause?
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook
Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.