Dogs get hiccups. Who knew, right? It turns out that this is a fairly common occurrence, especially in puppies. But what causes dog hiccups, and are there ever cases in which they actually indicate a medical problem?
Hiccups are defined by Merriam-Webster as a “spasmodic inhalation with closure of the glottis accompanied by a peculiar sound.” They occur when the diaphragm – the membranous divider of the abdomen from the thorax – spasms. The diaphragm receives its nerve supply from the phrenic nerve, which is a large, important nerve originating from the cervical (neck) spinal cord. The phrenic nerve receives information from and transmits information to the diaphragm, assisting in respiration.
If the phrenic nerve is immature (as in puppies) or becomes irritated (as in adults), then hiccups can result.
Does Your Puppy Get Hiccups?
Puppy hiccups are generally not a concern. As with human babies, puppies will hiccup in utero and after birth. This is because the phrenic nerve and diaphragm haven’t finished maturing and are easily stimulated. As puppies age, they should grow out of it. According to the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), most will no longer have these bouts of hiccups after about 4 months of age, although some can persist up to 6 months. If a puppy has hiccups and they are lasting a long time or seem irritating, you can attempt to place the pup on their back and roll them gently side-to-side a couple of times. Sometimes, this will stop the spasm.
Adult Dog Hiccups
Hiccups are much less common in older dogs, as the phrenic nerve and diaphragm are mature and less easily irritated. As with any scenario, a change in a dog’s normal health status should be evaluated by a trusted veterinarian. If your dog suddenly starts to develop frequent bouts of hiccups, a vet visit is in order.
Your veterinarian will gather a thorough history—asking details about when the problem started, how long the bouts last, and if anything seems to trigger it. Afterwards, a physical examination will be conducted. This includes vital signs, a weight, and examination of the major systems—skin, heart and lungs, lymph nodes, the orthopedic system, and the abdominal organs. If no abnormalities are found, your veterinarian may recommend simple observation at home. This might include recording the episode over the course of several days. Several different conditions may mimic hiccups including focal seizures, reverse sneezing, or reflux disease. A recording will help your veterinarian identify what is happening.
X-rays of the abdomen and chest might also be recommended. Since hiccups originate from phrenic nerve/diaphragm irritability, anything causing pressure on the diaphragm (from inside the chest or the abdomen) could lead to them. X-rays may help identify a cause.
If they do not, your veterinarian will likely take a wait-and-see approach. Chronic hiccups in humans have been linked to a host of disorders including lesions found in the central nervous system, pericarditis (inflammation of the sac around the heart), cancers of the neck, chest, and abdomen, and electrolyte abnormalities. This doesn’t necessarily correlate to dogs, but it is helpful information to have if further investigation is pursued. Case reports of dogs with chronic hiccups are rare, so it is hard to know if they are medically significant. In most cases, they are likely not.
There is no real treatment for hiccups. Some home remedies include the rolling technique described above and putting a teaspoon of sugar on the back of the tongue. Whether these work or not has not been thoroughly investigated.
As always, when in doubt, check in with your veterinarian for advice!