I’m sure you’ve had the panic at least once that your dog or cat is choking. Especially those of you with chow hounds who gobble up their food so quickly that sometimes they get a piece lodged briefly in their windpipe. Those few seconds while they are coughing are fear inducing, for sure! But luckily, true choking events in our pets are rare.
Choking is when a foreign object, such as food or a toy, obstructs your pet’s airway. It can be difficult to differentiate between an animal that is choking and one that is just coughing. During a choking episode, inhaling is difficult due to the airway obstruction. If your pet is not having trouble breathing in, choking is likely not to blame for the coughing fit.
We often see pets whose owners think they are choking. Most often, they are not truly choking. Dogs with kennel cough have such a persistent cough that many times owners think they are choking or have something at least partially blocking their airway. But remember, if they can breathe in normally, they are not choking.
If your pet is truly choking, you might need to intervene. If pet is awake and coughing, you don’t need to do anything; your pet will likely clear the obstruction on his or her own. But if your pet is unconscious, you’ll need to quickly take steps to save her life. If you’ve ever taken a basic human first aid course, some of this will look familiar.
First, do a thorough finger-sweep of your pet’s mouth. Use a hooked finger to pull foreign material out of the back of the mouth. Be careful not to inadvertently push foreign objects deeper into the throat.
Begin rescue breathing. If you do not see the chest rising and falling as you are giving breaths, the airway is still blocked.
To unblock the airway, you can administer a strong slap on the chest wall. You should also attempt the Heimlich maneuver. To do this, place your pet on her back, place your hands over her upper abdomen near the bottom of her rib cage, and thrust your hands towards her spine. Repeat your finger sweep and begin rescue breathing again. If the airway is still obstructed, repeat the Heimlich maneuver. Continue these actions until the airway is open and your pet regains consciousness.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – never attempt a finger sweep in an awake dog who is coughing. You could suffer severe injury this way.
After a choking incident, you should have your pet check in with her vet just to make sure there are no lingering effects from the event.