Add “choking dog” to the list of terrifying emergency situations we never want to encounter as pup parents.
But it can be a reality, especially if you have a curious puppy that enjoys snagging chicken bones off the worktop. And in this case, it’s better to be prepared than to hope it won’t happen.
So let’s figure out the steps you can take to work out whether a dog is choking and how you can help.
A note before we start: The advice given here is strictly informational. It cannot replace the advice of your vet or an in-person pet CPR training course. We strongly advise you to sign up for a reputable canine first aid course, which should help you feel much more prepared in the event of a pet emergency.
How to tell if your dog is choking
It’s important to make sure your dog is actually choking and not just coughing before you take any drastic action. Why?
Some of the following manoeuvres can actually cause trauma to your dog’s body, which is worth it if your dog is actually choking, but not so worth it if they’re reverse sneezing.
Signs a dog is actually choking
If your dog has something stuck in their throat, they may exhibit the following signs:
Increased respiratory rate
Limbs abducted outwards
Pawing at face or mouth
Changes in gum colour - bluish or grey due to lack of oxygen
There are a few things that may look or sound like choking but actually aren’t:
Reverse sneezing: this can be truly terrifying if you’ve never seen your dog do it before, but it’s usually not life-threatening and abates within a few minutes.
Kennel cough: this is another ailment that could look like choking if you’re not used to hearing your dog cough. It can be serious, so you should definitely get your pup checked out.
While it may not be a true choking emergency, if your dog starts coughing out of the blue, you’ll still want to see your vet. It could still point to a serious issue.
How to help a choking dog
If you see any of the above symptoms, especially in combination, it’s time to take action.
Step 1: Ensure the area is safe
This might seem like common sense, but you could end up in a bigger pickle if you run out onto a busy road or don’t pay attention to other factors that increase the danger in the situation.
Use caution as you would in any emergency situation.
Step 2: Head to the vet or attempt to remove the object
Once you’ve determined the area is safe and your dog is actually choking, but conscious and getting air, you basically have two options:
Go to the vet, or after-hours emergency vet, immediately
Try to remove the object yourself
Step one is the preferred answer, as long as your dog is still conscious and able to pass air successfully. Veterinarians have handled choking dogs before, and they’re more likely to be able to remove an object in a less traumatic way.
“Usually it will be safer and hopefully a little bit easier for [a vet] to try to remove whatever is obstructing [their airway] and causing difficulty breathing,” says Kirsten Ronngren, DVM, MRCVS.
If, for whatever reason, you have to remove the object yourself, use a gentle sweeping motion with your finger or another object, if you’re worried about getting bitten.
Take care not to push the item further back. It’s also not recommended to do this if you have any concern that your dog may bite you out of fear or stress.
Step 3: Use the dog Heimlich* (abdominal thrusts) if necessary
If you took route B and were unsuccessful, your dog may now have a fully obstructed airway and be at risk of losing consciousness. This is where the “dog Heimlich” may become necessary.
IMPORTANT: Abdominal thrusts will only work on a choking dog if the object has completely obstructed their airway.
Heimlich for a Large Dog
Still standing: put your hands locked just behind the diaphragm underneath the rib cage and give a few forceful pulls upward and outward. This can be followed by a few firm taps behind the shoulder blades as well.
Lying down: If your dog is lying down and you can’t get them up, you may be able to put two hands behind the diaphragm and give a push forward to dislodge the object.
Heimlich for small to medium-sized dogs
For smaller and medium-sized dogs, you may be able to lift up their legs, tip them down, and give them a few forceful pushes under the ribcage behind the diaphragm to dislodge the object. Again, this is similar to the Heimlich in people.
Once your pup is on the ground again, you may be able to get a few forceful pats behind the shoulder blades as well.
Step 4: Head to the vet
Whatever route you take to help your choking dog, head to the vet as soon as possible when your dog has regained consciousness or is able to pass air more successfully.
They can examine your dog for trauma and determine if any further investigation or treatment is needed. Both choking and any Heimlich-like manoeuvres can be very hard on your pet’s body, so it’s important to make sure your vet has no concerns going forward.
What if your choking dog is unconscious?
Time is of the essence. If you have a friend or family member nearby, have them call your vet while you take action.
If you can see the object and it is smooth or round in nature—such as a ball—you may be able to dislodge it. Here’s how.
Roll the dog on their back, placing your thumbs behind and on either side of the object in your dog’s throat, and roll down and out towards your dog’s mouth to encourage the ball to pop out. This motion looks somewhat like you are making a “J” shape with your thumbs as you attempt to ease the object forward.
When to use CPR on your dog
So you’ve dislodged whatever was choking your dog, but they’re still not breathing? Time is of the essence.
Learn how to perform CPR and provide rescue breaths.
Hopefully you found this article because you want to be prepared in the event your dog starts choking, and not because they’re choking right now. But either way, well done for being a responsible pet parent and making sure your pup is safe and sound.
The next step in responsible pup parenting? Look into dog insurance. It’s designed to reimburse you for unexpected accidents and illnesses you may encounter with your dog in the future.
*OK, so we’re pretty sure the Heimlich who invented this manoeuvre no longer wants to be associated with abdominal thrusts, but many of us still use that term to define “abdominal thrusts.” So we’re using it here.