Why Do Dogs Sneeze?

And what can I (or should I) do when my dog keeps sneezing?
By Claudia Kawczynska, March 2021
dog sneezing

Dogs’ sense of smell is their superpower; using their noses, they decipher the world. So, no surprise that, like us, they occasionally sneeze, and often for the same reasons. Random sneezes aren’t necessarily something to be concerned about. Common irritants include pollen; household products (another reason to always use pet-safe versions), perfume and second-hand smoke; or water inhaled while swimming or during a bath. Dogs will also sometimes sneeze when they’re excited, or during play. However, some sneezes should definitely be paid attention to and their causes treated or ruled out. Read on for more details.

Common Causes for Dog Sneezing

Note: If your sneezing dog has nasal swelling, a persistent runny nose or nose bleeds, or is pawing at her nose, there’s likely to be an underlying reason. Have your vet check her out without delay.

Dog Noses and Plant Material

Most of the time, sneezing is the result of a transitory irritation of a dog’s nasal passages. In this circumstance, a sneeze is the body’s way to dislodge or expel the irritant. If that irritant is, say, a stray bit of leaf, a snip of freshly cut grass or some other small object that gets hoovered up during your dog’s investigation of her environment, a sneeze or two is usually enough to do the trick. However, that’s not always the case.

If your dog has snuffled up a foxtail—a fishhook-like dried grass seed—even repeated sneezing most likely will not expel it. Foxtails are engineered to transfer from the plant to a host faster than the speed of light, embed and then migrate, which they do in only one direction: forward. 

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If your dog is unlucky enough to inhale a foxtail or other barbed grass awn, she’ll most likely sneeze like mad for a full few minutes, then stop. Most of us will then think, Whew, she sneezed it out, but oftentimes, that’s not true. Rather, it may mean that the foxtail has already traveled further up the nasal cavity. A tiny little drop of blood might appear on the tip of the nostril; this can be an indicator that the awn has indeed traveled up the nostril.

It’s a good idea to leave the area, keep your dog calm and observe her closely. Unfortunately, detecting a foxtail in a dog’s nostril can be both difficult and painful, and most dogs aren’t going to let you probe around looking for it.  If you believe your dog has inhaled a foxtail, a vet visit is definitely in order. Don’t dally; the longer you wait, the more challenging (and costly) removing the foxtail will be. (Even if it turns out not to be a foxtail, knowing that for sure is worth the cost of the visit.)

Dog Allergies

Just like us, a dog can have seasonal allergies. Plant or grass pollen, dust mites, and certain household chemicals are the most common culprits for allergy-related dog sneezing. Dogs who have allergies often are more prone to skin and ear infections as well. Talk with your vet about the best ways to treat these allergies.

Dog Nasal and Respiratory Infections

Frequent sneezing sometimes signals an infection caused by a virus, bacteria or fungi. Viruses (including distemper and parainfluenza) can cause a dog to sneeze. Bordetella is one of the bacteria that causes kennel cough, as well as sneezing. Aspergillosis is a common nasal infection caused by inhalation of aspergillus fungus, which is basically everywhere. Other inhaled fungi, such as cryptococcus and blastomycosis, also affect a dog’s respiratory system and will cause sneezing. All of these are treatable and can be diagnosed (or ruled out) by a visit to the vet.

Nasal Mites

In rare cases, persistent sneezing can be caused by nasal mites. These tiny insects, about only one millimeter in size, are found in dirt, and dogs who dig with their noses (as some dogs are wont to do) may contract them this way. These mites, which can be very irritating to dogs, are contagious, and require treatment. Your veterinarian may prescribe topical or oral medication to eliminate and prevent nasal mites.

Canine Nasal Cancer

A cancerous tumor in a dog’s nasal passage is sometimes the cause of excessive sneezing. Nasal cancer makes up from 1 to 2 percent of cancers in dogs and has an 80 percent malignancy rate. While, like most cancers, there’s no known single cause, it’s thought that this cancer has both environmental (second-hand cigarette smoke, for example) and genetic origins. Longer-snouted breeds like Collies and Dachshunds are the most susceptible. In addition to sneezing, symptoms of nasal tumors include difficulty breathing, noisy breathing, bloody nasal discharge, coughing, loud snoring, seizures and facial swelling. Needless to say, if your dog exhibits some or most of these symptoms, she should be checked out by your vet asap.

Dog Play Sneezing

Is your dog sneezing when excited? When your dog is having fun rollicking with her pals, she might be doing something called play sneezing. Sometimes a dog will do this to signal to other dogs that they’re “just playing” or it’s “just a game.” Or they may sneeze when they’re zooming in the yard, from the sheer joy of it. (Smaller dogs are more likely to do this.) Nothing to worry about.

Reverse Sneezing

Then there’s reverse sneezing, which really isn’t a sneeze at all—it sounds more like a honk. Vets call it inspiratory paroxysmal respiration, and it’s brought on by a muscle spasm at the back of a dog’s mouth, where the mouth meets the throat. The spasm makes it hard for the dog to inhale. (Interestingly, many of the same things that set off other sneezing fits as described in this article will also trigger reverse sneezes.)

Dog Breeds Likely to Sneeze

There are also structural reasons for a dog’s sneezing fits. The nasal passages of brachycephalic breeds—short-muzzled types like Bulldogs, Pugs and Boston Terriers—are compressed, which leads to a fair amount of sneezing, snoring and snorting. In fact, dogs of these breeds can have a condition known as brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (BAOS); sneezing is one of the symptoms associated with BAOS.

Canine Dental Problems

Finally, while it may not seem like an obvious cause, canine dental problems such as infected teeth or gums and abscesses can create an infection in the nasal cavities, causing a runny nose and sneezing.

Don’t Ignore These Symptoms

If your sneezing dog has nasal swelling, a persistent runny nose or nose bleeds, or is pawing at her nose, there’s likely to be an underlying reason. Have your vet check her out without delay.

Photo: iStock

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.