Overview of Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Dogs
Sneezing is a reflex of the upper airways, activated to explosively discharge irritating material from the nasal cavity. It is usually caused by the irritation of sensitive nerve endings in the mucous membrane that lines the nose. Nasal discharge is another sign of nasal disease or irritation.
Although normal dogs may occasionally sneeze or have nasal discharge (similar to human beings), severe, chronic or recurrent bouts of sneezing or nasal discharge suggest a more serious problem. Sneezing and nasal discharge often occur together and may be accompanied by postnasal drip, gagging, and/or reversed sneezing (an explosive, almost sucking noise).
- Nasal discharge can be categorized by character: serous (clear), mucoid (cloudy), blood tinged, bloody (epistaxis) or a combination of these. It is also categorized by location: unilateral (one nostril vs. bilateral (both nostrils); chronicity (acute vs. chronic); and associated signs of disease. For example, nasal bleeding could suggest injury, a tumor, bleeding disorder or a tick-borne infection.
Sneezing and nasal discharge can be caused by dozens of conditions. Some causes are brief and self-limiting such as acute viral infections. Other problems are recurrent such as seasonal allergies. Still others – such as tumors or lodged nasal foreign bodies – are relentless and chronic unless the problem can be resolved.
Nasal disease can affect pets of any age. Younger animals are more likely to be affected by communicable respiratory infections (viruses in most cases) or birth defects (such as cleft palate, ciliary dyskinesis, or imperforate posterior choanae). Older pets with sneezing/nasal discharge are more likely to have chronic dental disease or tumors. Working/hunting/outdoor dogs are more prone to inhalation of foreign bodies, such as fox tails plant awns, that can lead to acute and then chronic upper airway problems. Some fungal infections are more common in dogs (e.g. aspergillosis), while long nosed (dolichocephalic head) and medium to large breed dogs are predisposed to nasal tumors.
What to Watch For
- Sneezing and nasal discharge, which are the hallmark symptoms of nasal and sinus disease
Other signs may include:
- Rubbing the nose or pawing at the face
- Reversed sneezing (explosive high pitched sucking noises)
- Excessive swallowing (from post-nasal drip)
- Bleeding from one or both nostrils
- A foul smell from the mouth or nose
- Swelling over the bridge of the nose
- Noisy breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Lethargy (lack of energy)
Diagnosis of Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Dogs
Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests to determine what is causing the sneezing or nasal discharge and to direct subsequent treatment.
There are several potential diagnostic tests. Recommendations will depend upon the likelihood of the potential diagnosis. The tests may include:
- Physical examination and history including: examination for swellings; type of nasal discharge, airflow through the nostrils; ability of your pet to breath with the mouth closed; size and shape of lymph nodes; oral (mouth) cavity examination; and assessment of the eyes. Thorough examination of the upper airways is difficult without anesthesia. Acute causes of nasal discharge or sneezing – especially when caused by a respiratory viral infection – may be diagnosed from the history and clinical circumstances.
- General blood screening rarely identifies the cause of the nasal discharge. However, blood tests are recommended to look for secondary disease and concurrent problems and to minimize anesthetic risk.
- A platelet count and coagulation screen to assess for possible causes of bleeding.
- A nasal swab and microscope examination of the cells (cytology).
- Specialized blood tests for fungus infections.
- Examination of the nasal cavity and posterior choanae (back of the nose) using endoscopes.
- Flushing and cytology of the nasal cavities.
- Skull X-rays.
- Computerized tomography (CT).
- Biopsy of the nasal tissue (mucosa).
Treatment of Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Dogs
Treatment depends on the cause of the nasal discharge or sneezing. There is no “general” treatment for these symptoms.
Recommendations for home care will depend upon the underlying cause of the problem.
Monitor your pet for any abnormalities so that you can discuss them with your veterinarian. If general treatments do not clear up the symptoms, a diagnosis must be sought using appropriate tests.
Administer all treatments as recommended by your veterinarian. You may clean discharges from the nose, but do so only if you are confident you will not be bitten. Many pets eat based on their sense of smell. Often if your pet cannot smell the food, he will not eat it. You can warm food in the microwave or feed a canned food that may be smellier to encourage your pet to eat.
Vaccinate your pets against upper respiratory infections.