There’s no getting away from it, hiccups in dogs, and puppies in particular, are very cute. From the little squeaky noise to the surprise on their faces, in most cases they are a perfectly normal part of life. But what causes them and are they ever a reason for concern?
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What are Hiccups?
Hiccups are actually a type of reflex. They happen when the brain signals for the diaphragm, the large domed sheet of muscle that separates the lungs and heart from the abdomen, to contract suddenly in an involuntary spasm. This contraction causes a sudden intake of air that rushes past the vocal cords and causes them to snap shut producing the distinctive noise and sudden jerking motion. Things that can trigger the spasm include certain food (especially spicy food), eating too fast and taking in too much air (known as aerophagia), or a sudden change in temperature. It can also be brought on by a dog’s emotional state; if they are stressed or excited or even in some cases if they are tired. Occasionally they can be caused by certain medications such as steroids, diazepam and some antibiotics.
Why do they occur?
Hiccups are certainly a lot more common in puppies than adult dogs. And similar is seen across many other species including young cats, horses and rabbits, as well as of course human babies. Nobody knows for certain what causes the reflex that produces hiccups. Theories include hiccups being a form of burping reflex to move excess air from the stomach, a leftover mechanism from a previous evolutionary stage, a protective mechanism to stop babies from inhaling milk, or a way for animals in the uterus to practise using their breathing apparatus ready for birth.
Can hiccups be a problem?
Although for most dogs, hiccups are nothing to worry about, if they happen very frequently or last for a long time, especially in an adult dog, then they should be checked over by your vet to ensure that there isn’t an underlying cause. Your vet will want to know if there is anything in particular that seems to trigger the episodes, how frequent they are and how long they last for. You should also mention if your pet is showing any other signs; such as vomiting or regurgitation of food, or weight loss. If the vet has any concerns after examining your pet, they may suggest some further tests.
In rare cases, persistent or frequent bouts of hiccups can be caused by an underlying problem. Breathing conditions such as bronchitis and pneumonia may be a cause. And if your pet shows any signs of breathing difficulties during a bout of hiccups, they should be taken to your vet urgently. Other possible underlying diseases include heatstroke, tumours affecting the oesophagus, and gastrointestinal problems. Puppies with a heavy worm burden may get hiccups more frequently but will usually have other signs, such as weight loss or diarrhoea. There have also been rare cases where hiccup-type activity has been caused by blood calcium imbalances.
How can you get rid of hiccups in a dog?
There are no proven methods to stop hiccups. But the following (anecdotal!) methods may be worth a try if there is no underlying problem;
- Milk may help if your pet has inadvertently eaten something spicy
- Calming them down can help if the hiccups are caused by stress or excitement
- Eating bulky food, such as bread or rice, may help by putting pressure on the diaphragm
- Drinking water can sometimes be effective, or going for a gentle walk to distract them
As ever, prevention is generally better than cure. If your pet regularly gives themselves the hiccups it is worth looking at what triggers them and whether you can stop them. If they happen when your pup eats too quickly, try a slow feeder bowl and smaller, more frequent meals. Or if they are brought on by excitement, work on helping them regulate better and remove them from situations where they are getting overwhelmed. Try not to play or exercise your dog for an hour or so after a meal.
The good news is that most of the time hiccups are normal and nothing to be concerned about. But if you do have any worries, don’t hesitate to have a chat with your vet.