Why do dogs get hiccups?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

can dogs get hiccups

Story at-a-glance -

  • Younger dogs seem to get hiccups more frequently than older dogs, but the problem may become less frequent or stop altogether as puppies get older
  • Experts have discussed several reasons for hiccups in dogs, such as problems with indigestion or gas, but when dogs begin hiccupping in the womb, it may serve to “test-drive” their breathing muscles
  • Sometimes there’s an audible “hic” sound when a dog has hiccups, but other times you may just see the spasm and not hear anything
  • While your dog may sound like he has hiccups, it could be something called reverse sneezing, which can happen if a dog forcefully sucks air in through its nose
  • While some experts suggest giving a dog with hiccups some liquid sweetener, such as honey, sweet substances are problematic for several reasons, and “gently startling” the dog may cause even worse problems

Sometimes our resident canines crack us up, or at least make us smile. And when they experience something like hiccups that they can’t do anything to fix, try as they might, it can range from endearing to hilarious. But what if the hiccups dogs or puppies can have occasionally are just as uncomfortable for them as hiccups are for humans? There’s some conjecture about why hiccups happen in dogs or anyone else:

“Scientists don't actually know why humans, dogs, and other mammals hiccup. One theory is that hiccups are a leftover from when we were developing in utero. Fetal hiccups have been documented in many mammalian species. It could be that hiccuping in the womb is a way of test-driving the breathing muscles.”1

That may be why younger dogs seem to get the hiccups more frequently than older dogs do. Another possibility has to do with a puppy trying to deal with indigestion or gas. And in many of these cases, as puppies grow into dogs, the condition seems to become less frequent or stop altogether.

What causes dogs and puppies to ‘get the hiccups’

Involuntary contractions of the diaphragm, the medical terminology for hiccups according to Dr. Audrey J. Wystrach, a veterinarian based in Austin, Texas, involve the part of a dog’s skeletal muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen.2 Shaped like a dome, the diaphragm is the muscle involved when a dog takes a breath, and it contracts and moves downward to provide more space in the chest cavity when the lungs expand.

When a dog breathes out, the diaphragm moves back into the chest cavity as it relaxes. You may just see the spasm and not hear anything. Hiccup spasms can occur when a dog, especially a young dog, gets excited, inhales an irritant, undergoes stress, plays hard or even runs hard:

“Puppies are more prone to hiccups than adult dogs because of their high energy and excitement levels …They’re more likely to eat or drink too fast, and are more prone to rapid bursts of energy, which may impact their breathing.”3

There’s also something called reverse sneezing, which can happen if a dog forcefully sucks air in through its nose, and it may sound a little like hiccups.

What if a dog’s hiccups are a sign of something else?

In rare cases, veterinarians have discovered that a case of hiccups may indicate such problems as asthma or pneumonia, or it could be a symptom of heat stroke, which dogs (and cats) can suffer from as much as humans.

Again, it’s rare, but hiccups may point to a heart problem known as pericarditis, which is a buildup of fluid in the sac surrounding a dog’s heart, causing pressure that can result in congestive heart failure.4 There are a few instances that might warrant calling your veterinarian regarding dogs having the hiccups. It might be worth it to put your mind at ease if:

  • Your dog’s hiccups are prolonged, such as more than a few hours
  • The hiccups seem to happen frequently
  • It changes from a “hic” to a wheezing sound
  • Your dog has irregular or difficulty breathing
  • The hiccups coincide with a loss of appetite, lethargy, constipation, diarrhea or an upset stomach

What not to do when your dog has hiccups

Like many of the supposed cures for physical problems experienced by humans, there have been a lot of recommended remedies for a dog’s hiccups that will be neither helpful nor pleasant, and for dogs, maybe even harmful. One suggestion is “gently startling” your dog, which some allege can help humans get over a bout of hiccups. In dogs, though, the solution may cause even worse problems, such as distrust and behavioral issues.

There are animal experts who say you should give dogs a little something sweet in a liquid form, such as maple syrup or honey. However, besides those who call such advice superstitions, some say certain sweet substances can even lead to vomiting. If it’s done too frequently, it could contribute to obesity, inflammation, cavities or diabetes, or cause food avoidance because their regular meal is not sweet. But there are other problems:

“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 … Make sure to also avoid anything sugar-free, because those products often contain xylitol, which can be very dangerous for dogs.”5

Xylitol, a sugar alcohol that’s a viable sugar alternative for humans, is toxic to dogs. In fact, xylitol poisoning in dogs is reaching epidemic proportions, no doubt because it can be found in so many different products, and not just food for humans. The problem is worsened by the fact that so many humans give their dogs people food without being aware of all the ingredients in different products. If xylitol is one of the ingredients, it can prove very harmful to your dog.

Things you can do to help your hiccupping hound

One way you can help your pet get over a case of hiccups is to help them relax. If your dog is wound up, getting them to calm down is probably the first order of business. After that, petting them slowly and talking quietly can help, and Wystrach recommends massaging your dog’s chest to help relax their diaphragm.

One dog owner noted that his rescue dog often developed both belching and hiccups because she ate too fast. For that, the new owner tried giving her less food, but feeding her more often, which helped solve the problem. Allowing a dog with hiccups to calm down enough to drink water slowly, even if you have to remove their water bowl momentarily, may just do the trick.

Taking a walk or engaging in some other kind of light exercise with your dog might help change their breathing pattern, which is key for halting hiccups, whatever caused them. Encouraging your dog to roll over for a tummy rub doesn’t just calm them, but might change the position of their diaphragm, which may very well help the problem.

Don’t let your dog’s hiccups make you discourage them from running, playing or interacting as they usually do. As one veterinarian says, even if your dog has the hiccups, you can feel free to treat your pup like a normal dog.6

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