Ask Walter: Snorts, hiccups, and stank face

Dear Walter,

I’m a quiet, peace-loving cat. I live with a noisy, nosy dog. Sometimes, when the dog is particularly excited, barking, or bothering me, he stops suddenly, stands like a sawhorse with his legs all stiff and spread apart, stretches his neck out, gets this weird, glassy-eyed expression, and makes this strange snorting noise, taking long, raspy breaths through his nose. I know it’s not a sneeze or a cough — he’s done these before, usually directly into my face (gross!) This is a repetitive, noisy inhale through his nose, with his mouth closed.

Our owner spazzes out when she sees him do it, and often blames ME for swatting him on his nose! I’ll admit: sometimes, I really have no choice but to unleash the lightning-fast mixed-martial arts move I call “Paws of Fury.”But since I’ve seen him do this breathing thing when he was totally alone, after barking or sniffing something interesting outside, I’m pretty sure I didn’t damage him. Much.

Anyway, after a few seconds, he stops on his own, and goes right back to his totally irritating self. I’m not worried about it, just curious. So, you’re the expert on dog weirdness (no offense.) What’s his deal?

— Curious

Dear Curious,

No offense taken, thanks. What you’re witnessing is probably a “reverse sneeze.” While it looks like some sort of attack, it’s just a spasm, and, as you’ve described, tends to resolve in a few minutes without much ado. Dogs appear to be the only creatures afflicted with this — I get reverse sneeze “attacks” now and then, myself. Fortunately, it is a benign (= not harmful) problem and usually requires no treatment. Most dogs find it helpful if their owners try to soothe them by taking them out of the situation that caused the problem (excitement, barking, or enthusiastic sniffing are common triggers.)

If your owner is worried, she should have the dog checked by the veterinarian to be sure it’s not something more serious. A short video clip of the dog having one of these spells would be very helpful to bring along to the visit.

Dear Walter,

I’m a 12-week old Golden Retriever puppy and they used to call me Adorable, but recently started calling me Stopit, Cutitout, Knockitoff, and Gimmethat. Oh, and sometimes they call me Maxine. I love balls, chew toys, running, putting anything in my mouth, and running with anything in my mouth.

I get hiccups a lot. It doesn’t bother me, but it seems to bother my owner. Should I be worried? Do I need to take some tests? Because I’m just a baby, and I don’t know the answers to a lot of questions, yet! I’m afraid I’ll fail. Am I dying?! I feel fine!

— Ad **HIC!* Hound

Dear Hound,

No worries: hiccups are perfectly normal, especially in pups. No studying or tests needed.

Dear Walter,

I feel kinda bad for the cat, ’cause he’s not allowed to go anywhere like us dogs do, and that would bum me out. He seems ok with it, though. He likes to sniff shoes, no biggie, not weird. But here’s where it does get weird: sometimes while he’s sniffing, he gets this blank expression on his face (blanker than usual, and that’s saying a lot) with his eyes staring at nothing, standing there with his upper lip curled up away from his teeth for a few seconds. It’s as if he’s going to sneeze or something, but doesn’t. Then, he kinda licks his lips, and snaps out of it. So creepy. Is he possessed? Is he secretly an Elvis impersonator?!

— A-Thank-U, ThankUverymuch

Dear Thank-U,

While it may look like he’s practicing for his Vegas act, he’s actually engaging the help of a structure in the back of his nose called the vomeronasal organ (VNO). All cats including big ones like tigers and lions have one. Horses, cattle, pigs, elephants, some monkey-type critters, and even us dogs have this special scent organ. Snakes use them to literally taste the air. Groovy, right?

Cats, being drama queens, tend to get all ethereal and spiritual about sniffing cool stuff — like they’re having some sort of psychic “experience.” Supposedly, the lifting of the upper lip helps some animals direct the scent particles (teeny things called “molecules”) directly to the VNO, and some super-special smells called “pheromones” have a direct effect on the brain and body. Since cats are basically pheromone factories, it makes sense they’d have a patented maneuver for sniffing them: flehmen is the name for the “stank face” look they make when they’re sniffing something with their VMO. Frankly, we dogs are still WAY better at smelling stuff than cats are. And we look better doing it. Peace out.

— Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at