When Playful Pups Take “Having a Ball” Too Far

Causes and responses to a choking pet
By Shea Cox DVM, February 2012

Having “something stuck in the throat” is a common problem for our pets due to their curious natures and indiscriminate eating habits. Recently, I saw an adorable Bernese Mountain Dog named Clover after she had gotten a little over-exuberant with her tennis ball. She’d actually swallowed it. She presented for difficulties with both swallowing and breathing, and X-rays revealed that her distress was toy-induced.

True choking is actual interference with breathing caused by foreign material in, or compression on, the trachea (windpipe). Choking can occur due to an obstruction of the airway from a foreign object in the throat, severe swelling of the throat or constriction of the neck.

In order for a foreign object to cause choking, it must obstruct the opening to the airway—either directly (i.e., actually in the airway) or indirectly (i.e., compressing on the airway), as in the case of Clover. Clover managed to swallow the tennis ball, but the ball was large enough to cause compression on her trachea, making breathing difficult.

Severe throat swelling can also cause choking and is usually associated with an allergic reaction or response to trauma. The tissues within the throat can swell and block the opening to the airway.

Constricting neck injuries are usually associated with collars and ropes. Dogs whose collars become tangled can choke due to the constriction of the neck from the tightness of the collar. In severe cases, dogs and cats can hang from collars, leashes and ropes.

When I lived in Colorado, my immediate neighbor came home one day to find that her two dogs became “hooked” together by collar and jaw; the larger dog’s mouth slipped under the loose collar of the puppy while playing and they couldn’t get free; the struggle resulted in strangulation of the puppy. This was a devastating experience for everyone. Please take this moment to check your pets’ collars and ensure that they are the proper size.

Common signs of choking:

  • Drooling
  • Gagging
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pawing at face
  • Regurgitation
  • Anxiety and distress

If you observe any of the above signs, seek veterinary care immediately.

If you live far from veterinary care or do not have immediate transportation, the following measures may buy you some time while you are arranging for medical attention:

If you notice that your pet is choking, remove any item that may be constricting the neck, such as a tight collar. If you can do it safely, examine the inside of the mouth and remove any foreign object you see, but do not attempt to remove an object unless you can see and identify it.

If you cannot easily remove the object, lift and suspend a small animal with the head pointed down. For larger animals, lift the rear legs so the head is tilted down (like a wheelbarrow). This can help dislodge an item stuck in the throat. Another method is to administer a sharp hit with the palm of your hand between the shoulder blades, which can sometimes dislodge an object.

If this does not work, a modified Heimlich maneuver can be attempted. Grasp the animal around the waist so that the rear is nearest to you, similar to a bear hug. Place a fist just behind the ribs. Compress the belly three to five times with quick pushes. Check the mouth to see if the foreign object has been dislodged.

If your pet is unconscious, perform a finger sweep. Open your pet’s mouth and do a finger sweep by placing your finger along the inside of the mouth, sliding it down toward the center of the throat over the base of the tongue, and gently “sweeping” toward the center to remove any foreign material. Warning: There is a structure deep in the throat (the Adam’s apple) that feels like a smooth bone. Do not attempt to pull it out!

Melanie Monteiro, author of The Safe Dog Handbook, demonstrates these techniques.

What else could it be?

More times than not, what people believe to be choking, is actually an attempt to vomit or cough. Many pet owners will seek veterinary care because they believe their pet has something stuck in its throat, however, it is far more likely that your pet has something mild and infectious, such as tracheobronchitis (also known as kennel cough), and he or she is coughing rather than choking.

Choking versus coughing: With choking, the pet has difficulty inhaling; with coughing, the pet can inhale almost normally.

A few tips to help prevent a trip to the ER:

  • Make sure your pet has a collar that fits properly. Collars that are too tight or too loose can create serious injury and possibly death.
  • If you use a tie out, do not let your pet have sufficient slack to allow jumping over fences or off of decks and patios.
  • Like human children, keep all choking hazards, such as small items and toys, away from your pet. Super Balls and “mini” tennis balls for smaller breed dogs are also a common cause of upper airway obstruction in large breed dogs.

Clover and her experience prompted me to write this blog. I hope it will help prevent, or save, another pet in the future. Clover made a full recovery following the endoscopic removal of the tennis ball that she swallowed and she continues to do well!


Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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