Dogs are chewers. And dogs are coughers. And much like cats, sometimes it's difficult to know if they just need to clear their throat or if something has gotten stuck. When should coughing cause concern and alert you to the fact that your dog may be choking? And when do you intervene to help your pooch? It can be a very scary feeling watching your dog choke and not know what to do to help.
"Fortunately, it is relatively uncommon for a dog to be choking," said Tristan Daugherty-Leiter, DVM, a veterinarian specializing in emergency medicine and surgery at VCA Veterinary Emergency Service & Veterinary Specialty Center located in Middleton, Wis. "For many of the dogs who present for possible airway or esophageal obstruction, most end up being diagnosed with another problem such as kennel cough."
While that's reassuring news for dog owners everywhere, it's still important to know what to look for and how to assist your dog should choking occur.
Signs a Dog Is Choking
According to Daugherty-Leiter, dogs most often choke on rawhides, balls, and chew toys, especially if dogs are able to bite off small pieces of these toys. So if your dog has been engaging in these activities and begins coughing—unlike in humans, it's the most telling sign of choking for dogs—intervene right away.
Beyond coughing and choking sounds, there may be other signs of distress in your dog that you can watch for, including excessive drooling, pacing, pawing at their mouth or rubbing their face or snout along the ground. They may gag or retch. Or you might hear high-pitched squeaking or whistling. If their airway is blocked you may see them have difficulty breathing or in severe cases your dog could even collapse.
What To Do First To Help a Choking Dog
"Don't panic, and try to clear the airway if at all possible," said Daugherty-Leiter, offering his best advice to pet owners.
Acting quickly, in a calm manner, try to locate and clear the food or foreign object using your fingers. Be sure to use caution any time you are reaching inside of your dog's mouth, especially when they are in distress as they may try to bite. And do not force anything if you are unsure. If you can see what your dog is choking on but are unable to remove it with your hands, you might consider the Heimlich maneuver. "If necessary, you can try to perform a Heimlich maneuver but a dog's willingness to cooperate, especially under stress, can make it difficult to effectively do this," says Daugherty-Leiter. "I tell pet owners not to waste valuable time if immediate progress is not made. Once the airway is compromised, the pet's condition can deteriorate quickly."
Sometimes you may be able to dislodge larger objects by firmly putting pressure with both your thumbs under your dog's jaw at the base of their throat and pushing forward. Remember not to let your administration of CPR or other life-saving efforts delay getting your dog to the vet.
If your dog is seriously choking, your best bet is to get your dog to the vet or a veterinary hospital as quickly as possible. Once there, your vet will confirm whether your dog is choking or dealing with a respiratory issue. Your dog may need to be sedated so that removing the object is easier. In extreme and rare cases of complete obstruction, your vet may perform a tracheotomy to allow air to bypass the obstruction.
How To Do the Heimlich Maneuver on Dogs
In an emergency, follow these steps for just a couple of minutes to see if you can help your choking dog. If not, immediately seek the help of a veterinarian.
If your dog won't stand and is too large for you to lift, you can get your dog to lie on their side. Kneel behind your dog and find their rib cage, then make a fist and place it in the soft spot of their diaphragm under the rib cage and follow the rest of the steps above.
Remember, attempting the Heimlich maneuver may be difficult as your dog will be agitated or panicked and it may not be possible to safely restrain them. You don't want to unintentionally cause more damage to your dog.
What To Do After a Dog Stops Choking
Once you have confirmed your dog is no longer choking, take a few moments for everyone (humans and animals alike) to settle down. Then, perhaps most importantly, after any type of choking incident you should reach out to your veterinarian. "Absolutely seek veterinary care as soon as possible," said Daugherty-Leiter. "The consequences of a choking episode can be just as severe as the episode itself."
Your vet can evaluate your pup. Sometimes when choking, a dog will bite their tongue or the inside of the mouth. Your dog could also have damage to their throat from the foriegn object and may require a bronchoscopy. If they have sustained damage to their mouth or throat, they may have trouble eating their regular dog food if they aren't on a soft food diet already. And if you performed the Heimlich maneuver they should be checked for trauma to their chest. They may need X-rays to be sure all swallowed items are no longer lodged. And you'll want to let your vet know if your dog went without oxygen for any amount of time.
After the evaluation, your vet may send you home with some pain relieving medication or your pup may need to spend some time in the hospital to recover.
How To Prevent Your Dog From Choking
Daugherty-Leiter says common sense is key. "Don't play fetch with your dog using a ball that could obstruct its airway. For example, do not use a racquetball to play with a Lab. This is the same reason you don't feed a toddler whole grapes. Owners sometimes mistakenly assume a dog will 'know' to chew on something but not to swallow it, but many pets may not know. Small amounts of prevention can go a long way," he says.
So treat your home (and the backyard) like you would if you were preparing to have a toddler wandering around and getting into everything they shouldn't. You can't stop your pet from putting everything in their mouth, so always keep an eye on your dog when they are playing with chew toys and bones. If you have an aggressive chewer on your hands, always purchase extra-tough options. Don't leave objects within their reach that may be tempting—and dangerous—to chew on. Also, make sure you are purchasing dog food that is appropriately sized for your dog, young or old, large or small.
Giving your dog bones, especially from meats you've cooked, should be off-limits as those bones are more likely to be swallowed and can take on unnatural shapes once in your dog's mouth. You can also make other general first aid and emergency care efforts, such as preparing a pet first aid kit for your home. Being prepared can help keep you level-headed should a challenging health situation arise for your furry friend.