Dogs are capable of making a scary sound that often provokes midnight emergency vet visits among novice dog owners. In case you’ve never heard it, it sounds like a repetitive snort, sneeze, gag, honk, cough kind of a thing that usually lasts just a few seconds (though it may seem to last forever in some cases).

We in-the-know folks call this a “reverse sneeze.”

Though the term is arguably way too benign for a sound so sinister, it’s considered apropos given the reality of a reverse sneeze: no one ever died of one (that I know of). In fact, the condition isn’t generally considered a symptom of any specific disease process.

Reverse sneezing just happens episodically in some dogs—more so in specific breeds or to specific individuals due to a variety of factors we can only guess at: vigorous sniffing behavior, olfactory sensitivity, allergen exposure and/or the influence of some kind of structural airway challenge (e.g., tracheal collapse, brachycephalic syndrome).

As the owner of one mildly affected reverse-sneezer and one severe sufferer, I can tell you one thing: it stresses me out when either experiences an episode. They look so put out by their convulsive airway maneuvers that I generally end up hugging them until the evil thing passes.

Medically speaking, however, it’s really not a big deal--just a spasm of the soft palate is what we surmise. I treat it by hugging my dogs and stroking their throat. Getting them to relax usually does the trick.

Problem is, it’s not so easy a thing to explain to a first-time sufferer’s caretaker—especially in the middle of the night when they’ve driven 30 minutes in a sleep-deprived blur only to be asked to imitate the noise that jolted them awake:

“Um, do you mind repeating the exact sound you heard?”

(So you know, there’s nothing more amusing than this part of my job. Unfortunately, most newbie owners don’t know how to reverse sneeze like a pro—so I usually end up embarrassing myself with an excellent imitation.)

The worst is when I can tell an owner is not accepting any of my explanation:

“That’s NOT what I heard. I swear she was choking.”

Of course that’s always possible and I’ll always perform a full physical before discussing my findings and the likely diagnosis. I even ask owners to videotape or otherwise record a future event on their cell phones just to be sure.

But some owners want the works: full labs, chest and upper airway rads, tracheal wash etc. Sure, I’ll do it if the owners demand it but it’s typically a frustrating waste of resources. And when it all comes back clean they still somehow resent me for it—as if having to be hauled in to the vet hospital just to be proven wrong is somehow my fault.

For some reason a reverse sneeze is one of those veterinary rarities that stresses everyone out. Luckily, it’s one condition which fools owners only once. After they’re initially disabused of their erroneous expectation of imminent death, everything’s cool. Presumably, they eventually come to adopt my own personal approach to the nuisance: they learn to sleep through it.