Dog standing in a pool with a toy in their mouth.

Health & Wellness

How to save a choking pet

And how to help them quickly

Pets can get into just about anything. While it’s relatively uncommon for them to choke, it's smart to be prepared on the off chance an emergency happens. Veterinarian and pet health advocate Dr. Aliya McCullough shares how to tell if your pet is choking and tips to act fast.

What can cats or dogs choke on? 

You should always keep an eye on what’s in your pet’s mouth, as they can choke on many different objects. Some more commonly choked-on items for dogs include: 

Socks, balls, toys (children’s toys, too), rocks, plastic bags or wrap, food (human and dog), rawhides, Bully Sticks, bones and garbage

And for cats:

Food, hair ties and plastic toys

How to tell if your cat or dog is choking

There are a few key signs that your pet is choking. Look out for: 

  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Gagging or retching
  • Coughing
  • Turning blue 
  • Collapsing
  • No noise coming from your pet

What to do if your dog or cat starts choking

Swipe their throat with your finger

The amount of time it takes to remove the object from your pet’s throat is critical, as they could be struggling or unable to breathe. If you can, carefully and safely pry open their mouth and then swipe the food away using your finger in a sweeping motion across the base of the tongue. Avoid poking instead of swiping — that will push the food down further. 

Only perform a finger swipe if it’s safe to do so. When choking, pets are scared and panicking and may bite while you are performing this maneuver.

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Perform the Heimlich maneuver

Dogs

Try the Heimlich maneuver if swiping doesn’t work. If your dog is standing on all fours, place your arms around their chest and clasp your hands together in a fist. Using your fist, repeatedly push up and forward just behind their ribcage. If your dog is laying down, place one hand on their back and use the other to squeeze the abdomen upwards, according to the Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences department at Texas A&M University.

While performing the Heimlich maneuver, be sure to remove any pieces of the object that may break apart or become dislodged during the process. Once most of the pieces have been removed and your dog can breathe on their own, go to the emergency room. 

Cats

Start by holding your cat with their back against your chest. Use your hands to quickly push upwards on their stomach in series of five. If that doesn’t work, swipe the object again by holding your cat's hips and with her head facing down. Use your hand to firmly pat your cat’s back and check their mouth to see if the object is gone, according to Hill’s Pet. Once the object is gone and your cat can breathe on their own, go straight to the emergency room.

Perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

If your pet becomes unconscious and stops breathing, perform CPR. There are two types of CPR, chest compressions and rescue breathing, according to Veterinary Partners.

Chest compressions

For cats or small dogs, pick them up by wrapping one or both hands around their chest and squeeze rapidly (around 100 to 120 times per minute). If you have a larger dog that’s laying on their side, place your hands on the widest side of their chest and push rapidly. If your dog is laying on their back, press on the breast bone. Regardless of their position, perform 30 compressions at a rate of 100 to 120 times per minute. Be sure you are compressing ⅓ to ½ the width of their chest making sure the chest springs back fully after each compression.

Rescue breathing

To perform mouth-to-nose rescue breathing, close your pet’s mouth, straighten their neck, cover their nose with your mouth, and forcefully breathe air into their lungs. Keep blowing air into their lungs (the lungs will deflate on their own) until you see their chest expand. After giving three to five breaths, wait a couple of seconds to see if they start breathing on their own. If not, continue this process 10 times per minute and head to the nearest veterinary emergency hospital. 

If possible, and you have two people available, use rescue breaths in between sets of 30 chest compressions. Continue CPR as you make your way to an emergency animal hospital.

What should you do after your pet stops choking? 

Take your pet to the vet or animal hospital immediately to get them checked out. The veterinarian will want to evaluate and treat your pet for swelling or other injuries to the mouth, throat and lungs. They will also check to ensure the object has been entirely removed. In some cases after choking, pets will need to be hospitalized and receive oxygen therapy. 

How to prevent your pet from choking?

Younger pets usually choke more often than older dogs and cats because they’re learning and interacting with new objects. Dogs, in general, are more likely to choke than cats because they investigate objects with their mouths. However, there are some steps you can take to always ensure all pets are safe as possible:

  • Keep small items away from pets
  • Monitor pets during play and meal times
  • Make sure their toys don’t have pieces that can break off
  • Choose toys that are appropriate for the size, age and chewing behavior of your pet
  • Avoid rawhide and bones

If you want some more practice, sign up for a pet first aid course to help you feel comfortable. Accidents happen, with these steps you’ll be prepared to help your pet if they start choking. 

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Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

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