By Helen Anne Travis
Let’s be honest: It’s pretty adorable when our dogs get the hiccups. And when the hiccups happen to puppies? Don’t even get us started.
But could hiccups ever be a problem for pets? And do they bother our dogs as much as they bother us?
Our vet experts explain what causes the hiccups, how to help your dog, and when to call the veterinarian to make sure the hiccups aren’t a symptom of a more serious medical condition.
What Causes Hiccups in Dogs?
Hiccups are involuntary contractions of the diaphragm, says Dr. Audrey J. Wystrach, co-founder and chief operating officer of ZippiVet veterinary practice in Austin, Texas.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of internal skeletal muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen, she says. It’s the primary muscle involved in respiration. When a dog breathes in, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward, making more room in the chest cavity for the lungs to expand. When a dog breathes out, the diaphragm relaxes and moves up into the chest cavity. Normally, the movements of the diaphragm are smooth and regular, but when the muscle suddenly spasms, we call it a hiccup.
Involuntary diaphragmatic tics also cause hiccups in humans, says Dr. Stephanie Liff, a veterinarian and owner of Pure Paws Veterinary Care in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Hiccups can be brought on by eating or drinking too fast and swallowing too much air, she says.
Hiccups may also happen when dogs are excited or stressed, or when they inhale an irritant, Wystrach says. Energetic play and rapid breathing can also bring them on.
Reverse sneezes may sometimes be confused for hiccups, she says. But this is different. Reverse sneezes happen when a dog vigorously sucks in air through her nose.
How Common Are Dog Hiccups?
The condition is much more common in puppies than adult dogs, Liff says. Most dogs experience them at least once when they’re young, she adds.
Puppies are more prone to hiccups than adult dogs because of their high energy and excitement levels, Wystrach says. They’re more likely to eat or drink too fast, and are more prone to rapid bursts of energy, which may impact their breathing.
Their internal organs and systems are also less mature than those of adult dogs, Liff says, which may contribute to an increased chance of hiccups.
How Can You Help a Dog with Hiccups?
Most hiccup spells only last a few minutes, Liff says. In her experience, dogs don’t appear as agitated by the hiccups as they do by other symptoms, like vomiting or coughing.
Still, after getting over the adorableness of their dog’s hiccups, most owners want to do something to help their pets. “Many cures for dogs are quite similar to those used by their owners when hiccups strike,” Wystrach says.
These may include giving dogs something sweet or adding syrup, honey, or sugar to their water, she says. The sweetness can help distract your dog, which can change and hopefully relax her breathing pattern, Wystrach says. “You might want to try a little bit of honey, maple syrup, Karo syrup, or anything sweet in a liquid form.”
Since hiccups are involuntary and can be violent at times, you don’t want to give the dog anything solid that requires a lot of chewing, as this could lead to choking, she says. Make sure to also avoid anything sugar-free, because those products often contain xylitol which can be very dangerous for dogs.
You may try massaging your dog’s chest to help relax the diaphragm, or even gently startling your pet. Encouraging light exercise can also help change your dog’s breathing patterns, Wystrach says.
But don’t let the hiccups stop you from playing with your pup, Liff says. “You can still treat them like a normal dog.”
When Should You Call a Doctor?
Liff says she gets a lot of calls from pet owners concerned about a doggie hiccup attack. For the most part, she tells them it’s nothing to worry about.
But in very rare cases, hiccups could be a sign of a more serious underlying problem, such as respiratory defects, pneumonia, asthma, pericarditis, or heat stroke, Wystrach says. If the condition persists for more than a few hours, it’s time to call your veterinarian.