Owen entered my life when I was 19, a sophomore in college. I had lived with dogs most of my life, but the brunt of the responsibility for their care fell on my parents’ shoulders. Owen was the first dog that depended solely on me. I think I did a pretty good job, even as a somewhat unfocused teenager.

I got my first veterinary scare as a “grown-up” dog owner when Owen was a year old or so. We had been through all the routine puppy vaccines, neutering, etc. with no drama. But one day, while gnawing on a rawhide, he all of a sudden stood up, hunched his back, extended his neck and said…

SNORK! SNORK! SNORK!

This seemingly went on forever (in truth, less than a minute). I panicked, grabbed my wallet, ran down the stairs, and jumped into the nearest cab (thankfully driven by a dog-lover who didn’t mind a canine passenger). Of course by the time I arrived at the vet clinic, Owen was back to his normal, tail wagging self.

The veterinarian thoroughly examined him and said that all he could find wrong was some evidence of irritation at the back of his throat. I’m sure there was more to our discussion, but at the time I was living in Montreal. My veterinarian was excellent but a native French speaker. My French was passable for such essentials as “where is the wine?” (Où est le vin?), but the intricacies of a veterinary diagnosis were beyond me.

Owen continued to have intermittent snorking episodes, but they were few and far between and always resolved on their own so I just shrugged and thought, “C’est la vie.” My roommate and I named the condition “Chewus Swallowus,” blaming the rawhide for his initial attack, which may or may not have been the case.

I say “may or may not” because when I was in veterinary school, I learned what was actually going on with Owen — reverse sneezing. This is a very common occurrence in dogs, but if an owner is unaware of what is going on (as I was) it can be truly terrifying. Take a look at this video if you’ve never seen it for yourself.

Hard to believe that reverse sneezing is usually nothing to worry about, eh?

I explain reverse sneezing to my clients this way. Irritation to the front part of the nasal passages (e.g., a snout-full of dust) causes “regular” sneezing. Irritation to the back of the nasal passages (think post-nasal drip) causes dogs to “reverse” sneeze.

To figure out whether reverse sneezing is something to be concerned about, just mentally turn it into “regular” sneezing. If the frequency of the episodes is about what you would consider normal for sneezing, just keep an eye on things. If it’s not, make an appointment with your veterinarian. In rare cases, foreign material (like pieces of rawhide), parasites, tumors or other identifiable sources of irritation to the back of the nasal passages can cause abnormally intense reverse sneezing and need to be addressed.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Erik Lam / via Shutterstock