Pets are often brought to the doctor for “making a weird noise.” Sound can be emitted from multiple regions of the body (for example, rumbling and bubbling in the GI tract or clicking in the joints), but most of the abnormal noises produced by dogs and cats are coming from their upper respiratory system. This part of the body performs the complex task of directing food, water, and air past each other efficiently while preventing them from ever taking a wrong exit. It’s amazing that the numerous flaps and gaps of the upper respiratory system can work together so seamlessly, day and night, awake and asleep, to prevent dangerous collisions at the food-air intersection. Because each one of those flaps and gaps produces a different noise when air passes over it, dogs and cats are capable of making a wide variety of weird sounds.

Some breeds of dog and cat (short-nosed) are born with undersized nostrils. This produces a hissing noise with overtones of bubbles, since the openings are too small to allow quiet and efficient air flow. Surgery is used to enlarge the nostrils, and the pet’s comfort level improves immediately.

Sneezing is easy to identify, right? That comes strictly from a problem inside the nasal cavity and usually originates from irritation of some kind. It can be bad tooth roots, a cold, a tumor, or even a blade of grass or a fly larva. Many pets have performance anxiety in the exam room, so take a video if you’re having trouble identifying what you witness at home. It’s very helpful to know right off the bat whether sneezing is occurring, since the tests and treatments needed to address pet noises differ vastly according to the source.

Snoring and snorting noises are most common in certain breeds (short-nosed!), but they come from the area of the soft palate. That’s the roof of the mouth, way at the back in the dark. If the soft palate is too long and floppy, it can be substantially more serious than just a little extra noise. Dogs with this problem can’t pant properly, and panting is their only way to keep cool in the summer. If your dog makes a lot of snoring noises, you will need to be extremely cautious about letting her out in hot, humid weather. The harder she tries to pant and cool off, the more puffy the soft palate gets. The airway gets blocked more and more, the pet starts to panic, the body temperature skyrockets, and these patients can actually suffocate. While most loud respiratory noises are not especially dangerous, this is an exception. An operation can shorten the soft palate so that it’s not such a hazard. Cats that snore and snort should be checked for growths in the upper airway, because polyp formation is relatively common in felines.

Snoring noises should be taken seriously since they can bring about such catastrophic consequences according to the whims of the weather, but not every snort is created equal. In our next piece, I’ll help you discriminate between snorts and then round out our field guide to weird pet noises with hacking, roaring, and squeaking.

Dr. M.S. Regan