You might’ve panicked at least once that your dog (or cat) is choking. Especially if you have a chow hound who gobbles up their food so quickly that sometimes they get a piece lodged briefly in their windpipe. Those few seconds of coughing are fear inducing, for sure! But luckily, true choking events in our pets are rare.
Choking occurs 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's choking and one that's just coughing. During a choking episode, inhaling is difficult due to the airway obstruction. If your pet can breathe in normally and comfortably, choking is likely not to blame for the coughing fit.
Dogs with kennel cough have such a persistent cough that many times owners think they're choking or have something at least partially blocking their airway. But remember, if they can breathe in normally, they aren't choking.
Your pet will likely clear the obstruction on their own if they are awake and coughing. But if your pet is unconscious, you’ll need to quickly take steps to save their life. If you’ve ever taken a basic human first aid course, some of this will look familiar.
What to do if your dog is choking
- Do a thorough finger sweep of your pet’s mouth, using a hooked finger to pull foreign material out of the back of the mouth. Be careful not to accidentally push foreign objects deeper into the throat. Never attempt a finger sweep in an awake, coughing dog, as you could suffer severe injury.
- Begin rescue breathing. If you don't see the chest rising and falling as you're 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 their back, place your hands over the upper abdomen near the bottom of the rib cage and thrust your hands toward the 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.
After a choking incident, you should check in with your vet just to make sure there are no lingering effects from the event.