How to Help a Choking Dog

Learn about the causes and what to do for a choking pet.
By Shea Cox DVM, CVPP, CHPV, February 2012, Updated June 2021
dog choking

Owners reporting their dog having “something stuck in the throat” is common due to the curious nature and indiscriminate eating habits of dogs.

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.

Common Causes of Choking in Dogs

Choking in dogs is a common veterinary emergency. Choking is the interference of a dog’s breathing and can occur due to an obstruction of the airway from a foreign object in the throat, severe swelling of the throat, constriction of the neck or compression on the dog’s trachea (windpipe).

Choking due to foreign object

In order for a foreign object to cause choking in a dog, 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.

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Choking due to Allergic Reaction

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

Choking due to Neck Constriction

Constricting neck injuries are usually associated with a dog’s collars and leashes. Dogs whose collars become tangled or snagged can choke due to the constriction of the neck from the tightness of the collar. In severe cases, dogs and cats can even hang themselves from collars, leashes and ropes potentially leading to death.

My 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 Choking Signs

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

If you observe any of the above signs of choking in your dog, seek veterinary care immediately.

What to Do if Your Dog is Choking

If you notice that your dog is choking and you do not have access to immediate veterinary care, the following measures may buy you some time while you are arranging for medical attention:

1. Check for the obstruction. 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 easily.

2. 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.

3. Use the Heimlich maneuver for dogs. If the previous steps do 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.

dog choked on ball

Unconscious Pets

If your dog is unconscious, perform a finger sweep. Open your dog’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 same techniques to save a dog from choking in the video below.

Often Mistaken for Choking

More times than not, what people believe to be their dog choking, is actually an attempt to vomit or cough, or simply a reverse sneeze. Many dog owners will seek veterinary care because they believe their dog 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 dog has a collar that fits properly. Dog 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 dog 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 dog. Choose safe dog toys, super balls and “mini” tennis balls for smaller breed dogs are also a common cause of upper airway obstruction in large breed dogs.

Clover made a full recovery following the endoscopic removal of the tennis ball that she swallowed and she continues to do well! I hope these tips will help prevent, or save, another dog in the future.

Photo by SplitShire / Pexels

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.

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