What You Need to Know if Your Dog Starts Choking

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to help a choking dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fortunately, dogs don't choke very often, but when they do it can quickly escalate to a life-threatening emergency
  • In a pet choking emergency: remain calm, check your dog's mouth for a foreign object, and remove it if you can do so without injuring yourself or your pet
  • If you can't remove the object, perform the Heimlich maneuver to attempt to dislodge it
  • When the object is dislodged, check your dog's airway, breathing and heart rate, perform CPR if necessary, and get your pet to your veterinarian or an emergency animal hospital immediately

Most dogs are indiscriminate eaters who also like to chew things they shouldn't. This combination is a set-up for potential disaster, as any experienced dog parent can attest. No matter how tiny a dog is, or how old, or how well-trained, most swallow (or try to swallow) something they shouldn’t at least once in their lives.

The most common cause of choking in dogs is ingestion of an object that lodges in the airway, including things like hard rubber balls, broken pieces of toys, and chew sticks that swell when they become moist.

It can sometimes be difficult to tell whether a dog is choking or just coughing. The difference is that a choking dog will be struggling to breathe, whereas a dog who is just coughing will breathe relatively normally. If your dog is choking, he's actually suffocating, and he’ll get panicky. Also watch for pawing at the mouth.

Fortunately, it's uncommon for pets to choke, especially to the point of unconsciousness, but if your dog ever does, you should be prepared to take lifesaving measures.

First Things First: Remember to Keep Your Cool in a Choking Emergency

Maintaining your composure when faced with a choking emergency can be hard to do, but it’s really important if you want to ensure your furry family member gets the help she needs. If you stay calm, you’ll be better able to provide first aid, as well as vital information to the people treating your pet. In addition, your animal companion can sense your fear, which will raise her stress level and decrease the chance for a good outcome.

In the event of any crisis involving your pet, I recommend you call your veterinarian or a local emergency animal hospital right away (or an animal poison hotline if you think your dog has ingested a poison). However, if the situation is immediately life-threatening, such as a choking incident, taking matters into your own hands may be necessary to save your pet.

Check Your Dog’s Mouth for Foreign Objects

If you can see the object, you can try to remove it — but only if you can do it without injuring yourself or your pet.

Have a helper put one hand on your dog’s upper jaw and the other on the lower, grasp the jaws and press the lips over the teeth so they are between the teeth and the person’s fingers. If you’re working alone, keep the index finger on your lower hand free to sweep the mouth. Any dog can bite when panicked, so use every precaution.

Look inside your dog’s mouth and sweep your finger from the back of the mouth forward to try to remove the obstruction, except in the following situations, which require immediate veterinary intervention:

  • If there are bones lodged deep in your dog’s throat, do not try to pull them out, as this can only be done safely on sedated pets
  • If there is anything hanging from your dog’s mouth (e.g., thread, string, cord, etc.) don’t pull it or cut it, as doing so may cause injury to the throat, esophagus, or other structures
  • If the swallowed object is sharp, don’t try to remove it yourself

In the above situations, or in the event you can’t move the object in your dog’s mouth or throat with your fingers, it’s crucial that you get your dog to your veterinarian or the nearest emergency animal hospital immediately.

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How to Perform the Heimlich Maneuver

If your dog is choking and you can’t see anything in her mouth, especially if she’s unconscious, attempt the Heimlich maneuver as follows:

1. Open her mouth and check for a foreign object. If you can see something in the mouth or throat, try to remove it with your fingers, or grip her tongue and pull it toward you to try to dislodge the object. Alternatively, move your finger around inside your dog's mouth to try to feel and dislodge any foreign object. (There is obviously a risk of being bitten, so take appropriate precautions anytime you put your fingers in your pet's mouth.)

2. If you have no luck dislodging the object by manually removing it, pick your dog up and place his back against your chest. Put both hands under his waist area behind the ribs. Make a fist with your hands, place them behind the last rib, and rapidly push up and in 5 times.

If your dog is too heavy to lift, stand behind him, place your arms around him under the rib cage, make a fist with both hands, and pull in and upward rapidly 5 times.

If your dog is unconscious and too heavy to lift, lay him on his right side. Kneel beside him with his legs pointing toward you. Place one hand on the other and place the palm of the bottom hand right behind his ribs. Push in and up 5 times rapidly.

3. Open your dog's mouth again and look for any foreign object dislodged during the abdominal thrusts you just performed. Move your finger around in his mouth to dislodge and remove the object.

4. If the object still hasn't been dislodged, with your dog on the ground, put your hands in front of his hips, then lift and suspend him with his head toward the floor.

If he's too heavy to lift, lift his back feet until his head is lower than his hips.

5. Recheck your pet's mouth and use your finger to feel for the object and remove it.

6. If this doesn't work, put your dog in a sitting or standing position and use the palm of your hand to deliver 5 sharp blows to his back between the shoulder blades.

7. Open your dog's mouth to check again for a foreign object. You might want to use a small flashlight to get a better look inside. Use your fingers to try to find and clear the object.

8. Until the object is dislodged, continue to repeat the above steps.

9. If your dog loses consciousness, give him 5 breaths followed by 5 abdominal thrusts and continue these 2 steps (breaths and thrusts) until the object is dislodged.

As soon as the object is dislodged, check your dog’s airway, breathing and heart rate. Perform CPR if necessary and get your dog to your veterinarian or an emergency animal hospital immediately.

Here is a very simplified, easy-to-understand home video demonstration of how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on both a small and large dog:

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