The "gag reflex," also known as the laryngeal spasm or pharyngeal reflex, is a contraction of the back of the throat triggered by an object touching the roof of the mouth, the back of the tongue, the area around the tonsils, or the back of the throat.
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It occurs in people, dogs (yes, they have tonsils, too), and other animals. Gagging is usually accompanied by choking, hacking, or coughing and is a distinctly recognizable, distressing sound that frightens dog owners because it comes on so suddenly.
Germantown Veterinary Clinic says gagging is, "commonly misinterpreted as dry heaving, but gagging is when your dog extends his neck and opens his mouth in an effort to eliminate irritants in his throat." Sometimes gagging is accompanied by a hacking sound and the dog licks his lips and swallows repeatedly after gagging. Of course, your first instinct is what can you do right away to help your dog, and you wonder, why is my dog gagging?
Just as in people who cough and gag due to a serious bronchial infection or even lung disease, or simply because they're fighting a cold or clearing their throats, with dogs, gagging can also be either a major or minor issue. We'll explore what you need to know to make the right decision about when to seek veterinary care and treatment. For your peace of mind, most issues of gagging and coughing in dogs can be resolved.
When gagging is normal
In a nutshell, if your dog gags only once in a blue moon, it's usually not an emergency and may be caused by a foreign body stuck somewhere in the mouth, say a grass stem, or some other minor irritation. In fact, occasional sneezing or gagging is completely normal for dogs. It's their way of getting rid of acute irritation in the nose and throat.
However, if your dog is suddenly gagging and in obvious distress, or chronically gagging, which is characterized by repetitive gagging episodes, it is a call to action, and may even be a veterinary emergency.
How to recognize the signs and causes of gagging
Gagging, sneezing, and coughing in dogs can indicate several different problems, some more serious than others. If your dog is gagging and it's clear she is having difficulties, it's important to be able to differentiate the sounds and behaviors you're observing to glean what you will need to pass on to your vet to aid in her diagnosis. To a certain extent, gagging is part and parcel of the coughing experience and coughing is caused by a variety of disorders or conditions.
Here are some common reasons for gagging. Some may require a trip to the vet asap, or can be cured quickly and easily with antibiotics, or may even resolve on their own:
A foreign object , such as a grass seed or acorn, for example, is stuck in your dog's throat, and if it is not expelled through coughing, you'll need to see the vet asap. Watch for a violent cough that sounds more like gagging, lip licking, and attempts to swallow.
Respiratory infections like kennel cough which produces deep, dry hacking coughs, sneezing, snorting, gagging and in some cases, vomiting. It is highly contagious and often occurs after frequenting a dog park, dog grooming salon, and other places where dogs congregate. It requires vet care and is cured by antibiotics.
A collapsing trachea is associated with feisty behavior by your aging, excitable, and overweight toy breed when he pulls on the leash to confront a large dog to let him know who's boss. It causes gagging and coughing and can be controlled by prescribed foods and supplements.
A respiratory event known as a reverse sneeze sounds like coughing, choking, and gagging. It is rarely an emergency and typically resolves on its own.
Although rare, tonsillitis does occur in dogs. Clinical symptoms include gagging, coughing, difficulty swallowing, pain, drooling, lip licking, poor appetite or refusing to eat, fatigue, discharge from the eyes or nose, halitosis, hiding, or pawing at the mouth.
Two relatively minor conditions accompanied by gagging or a cough are allergies and a sore throat. Both produce similar reactions, including a seriously high-pitched gagging following by licking the lips and swallowing. Dogs can get hay fever and can have allergies triggered seasonally by the environment or food. Your vet can help by diagnosing the allergy and treating accordingly.
Symptoms associated with gagging that need immediate veterinary care
Gagging when accompanied by the following symptoms require veterinary care as soon as possible:
- Cough has lasted more than a week, or is getting progressively worse.
- Coughing or retching profusely.
- Coughing up blood.
- Fatigue or lethargy/listlessness.
- Lack of appetite or refusal to eat or drink.
- Concurrent health problems, whether preexisting conditions or accompanying gagging.
- Collapses suddenly.
Diagnosing and treating coughing and gagging
If you determine your dog's gagging is not normal, you'll need to see your veterinarian as soon as possible to diagnose and treat the problem. Like all medical issues, early detection is key and gives your dog the best chance of recovery. Again, watch your dog carefully so you can pass on your observations to the vet to aid in his diagnosis.
Here are some typical treatments for issues associated with gagging:
- A sore throat, tonsillitis, and even pneumonia can be effectively treated with antibiotics.
- If caught on time, foreign objects can be removed by your vet without further complications. It's essential to watch your dog carefully if you think she may have ingested a foreign object. If not addressed, stuck objects can lead to pneumonia and severe bacterial infections.
- Allergies are usually treated with medications, specially formulated foods, and supplements.
- Congestive heart failure or heart disease, if caught early on, can be treated with specific medications that manage the disease and give your dog a comfortable quality of life.
- Tracheal collapse is treatable and prevention is the first defense for this one. Keep your wee pup's weight in check and train for appropriate behaviors.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.