Integrative Pet Vet column: What’s with my sneezing dog?

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet

Everyone sneezes sometimes, because occasional sneezing is normal. The cause of sneezing in dogs includes normal play-related behavior and reactions to minor irritations to more serious conditions that require therapy. Some dog breeds, like French bulldogs and pugs, are more prone to sneezing because of the shape of their face. Awareness of normal sneeze behaviors and the causes of sneezing can be valuable when deciding about medical attention.

Sneezing is a forceful expulsion of air through the nose. However, sometimes dogs have a sneeze that involves inhaling air during the sneeze. This is known as a reverse sneeze.

Usually sneezing is a reaction to something minor like dust or an irritant. These sneezes are often brief and do not continue once the irritant is gone. With more serious problems, sneezing episodes can be more frequent, last longer and be more distressing to the dog. Nasal discharge can be from one or both nostrils and be purulent, bloody or a combination. The cause of serious problems range from sinus infections, foreign bodies like grass blades or seeds, nasal mites, tooth infections and tumors to nasal trauma. Diagnosis of these problems can sometimes be challenging, so it is important to be observant of your dog’s normal activities, the character of the sneeze, if there is discharge from one nostril or both and the features of the discharge. Social interactions and travel history may become important for chronic or poorly responsive sneezing situations.

Allergies can result in sneezing. This is often seasonal when the allergen is present. However, some allergens like dust mites can be present year-round. Nasal discharge associated with allergies is often clear but produced in higher than normal amounts.

Nasal foreign bodies can be difficult to diagnose and treat. As with other nasal issues, sneezing, nasal discharge, rubbing or pawing at the muzzle can all be signs of a nasal foreign body. Nasal discharge is from one side of the nose — the side with the foreign body. Keep in mind that the discharge from one side of the nose can be an important clue for focusing diagnostic testing and symptomatic therapy. Problems like an infected tooth, oronasal fistula (abnormal hole between the mouth and the nasal cavity) and nasal tumors can have nasal discharge from one side.

Unfortunately, the nasal cavity is the site of a common inflammatory disorder known as idiopathic lymphocytic-plasmacytic rhinitis (LPR). The cause is unknown, but certain cells like lymphocytes and plasmacytes infiltrate into the lining of the nasal cavity resulting in inflammation (rhinitis). LPR is the second-most common chronic problem associated with the nasal cavity in dogs. It is associated with sneezing and the appearance of difficulty inhaling a breath. The nasal discharge varies from bloody to cloudy with a greenish color. Even though LPR generally affects both nasal cavities, it can present with discharge from one or both sides. Diagnosis involves ruling out other causes and obtaining a tissue biopsy from the nasal lining.

Nasal mites can cause sneezing sometimes. They are transmitted between dogs through contact, but the mites can live in the environment for short periods. Once established in the nasal cavity, the mites can trigger sneezing, reverse sneezing and sometimes a bloody nasal discharge. However, not all dogs sneeze when they have nasal mite infections. This means that some nasal mite infestations remain unrecognized, allowing for continued spreading. The mites are not always visible in the nasal opening, and diagnosis may require examining the nasal cavity under anesthesia with specialized equipment or treating for mites if suspicion is high.

Obtaining a diagnosis for a sneezing problem can sometimes be challenging. Treatment and supportive care depend on the diagnosis. Unfortunately, some issues, like LPR, are prone to reoccurring. Definitive treatment should always be sought including: foreign body removal, infection treatment, tumor management, dental care, nasal mites treatment and allergy control based on the source of sneezing. Additional supportive care can focus on herbs like marshmallow root that can sooth the membranes lining the nasal cavity and boswellia that has anti-inflammatory properties. Vitamins like A and C can be beneficial for improving function of the nasal cavity lining.

If your dog is sneezing or has an abnormal discharge, contact your veterinarian.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

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