Quick Thinking: Responding to a Choking Dog and First Aid

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 9 min read

Quick Thinking: Responding to a Choking Dog and First Aid

If there's one thing we can all agree on when it comes to our canine companions, it's that they love chewing on everything. Whether it's their favorite toy, a bone you give them to chomp on, or the latest batch of homework, there’s always something in their mouth.

Of course, it makes sense. Dogs don't have hands, and their primary senses for interacting with the world involve smell and taste as much as eyesight and hearing. Getting a mouthful of anything is how they interact with the world around them.

The trouble is what ends up in their mouth isn’t always doggy safe. Dogs can end up with something lodged in their throat or the back of their mouth, and it can go from playful fetch to an emergency situation in an instant. Every single dog parent out there should know how to deal with a choking dog ASAP, as well as any related first aid. By the time you pack your pup up and take them to an emergency vet, it may be too late.

Today we’re going to help prepare you on how to respond in the event your pup begins choking. We’ve included two great videos that demonstrate the techniques needed to help save your pup’s life.

Okay, let’s get started.

How to Prevent Your Dog from Choking

Let’s start by talking a bit about prevention. There are some basic rules that you can follow to reduce your pup’s risk of choking. These include:

  • Don’t leave small objects around your house that your pup can access and potentially try to eat.
  • Choose hollow ball toys instead of solid ones like tennis balls.
  • Choose ball toys that are too big for your dog to fully put in their mouth.
  • Inspect your dogs’ toys regularly and toss out any that are in poor condition to avoid having a chunk break free.
  • Avoid giving chew toys that can splinter.
  • Choose size appropriate toys, in other words don’t give a Great Dane a chew toy meant for a Yorkie.
  • Feed dry food that is the appropriate size for your pup. Large round kibbles should not be fed or accessible to a small dog.
  • If your pup likes to woof down their food, buy a slow feeder dish to reduce their pace.
  • With small dogs, be mindful of anything you drop, things like a rouge nut or hard candy can be choking hazards.

While choking can’t be fully prevented, following the above recommendations will remove the risk associated with some of the common items that cause pups to choke.

What Are the Signs of a Choking Dog?

In order to act quickly in an emergency situation, it’s important to first familiarize yourself with the signs of choking.

If your pup has gotten something lodged in their mouth or throat they're likely going to panic about it. They'll retch and try to get it out of their throat. They'll pace or run back and forth in obvious distress. They may paw at their head, mouth, or neck in an attempt to get at what's causing the problem. They may also whine or try to in an attempt to get your attention.

Signs of a Choking Dog Image by Toe Beans

The worst case is when they aren't making any noise at all. That means a complete airway obstruction, and that's when you have only moments between life and death. You have to think quickly, spring into action, and be decisive to have the best chance of saving your furry friend's life.

Outlining the Process

We’ll get started with an overview of what you should be thinking and doing the moment you identify your pup is choking. Ideally, you'll have a bit of first aid knowledge (or even have taken a canine first aid class offered by a local vet or pet rescue), and you can rely on that knowledge. You can also visit sites like First Aid For Pets for a free dog choking course.

Step 1: Stay Calm

Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but in an emergency, a clear mind and calm demeanor will help you act safely and deliberately.

Dogs are pros at reading body language and if you’re freaking out because they’re freaking out, it’s only going to increase their frantic behavior and make it harder for you to help.

So, if you see your dog is choking, act fast, and take deep breaths to help yourself remain calm.

Step 2: Identify and Attempt to Remove Obstruction

If you feel confident you can safely use your hands to inspect your pup’s mouth, the next thing to do is see if you can dislodge whatever is stuck. We’ll dive deeper into the exact process to use in the next section.

Owner Assisting a Choking Dog Image by Toe Beans

If you can see your pup is still able to breathe, spend no more than 1-2 minutes trying to dislodge whatever is causing the blockage.

Step 3: Head to the Vet

Whether you’re able to remove the obstruction or not, the next step is to head to your closest vet.

The further away you are from an emergency vet, the less time you have at home to remove the blockage. If you live further away, you might need to immediately head to your car while a friend or family member helps try to dislodge the hazard.

Pro Tip: Always know your closest vet who can help in an emergency and have a backup in mind if the primary option is closed for the day.

If you’re able to get the object out, your dog may still be in panic mode. They may try to snap or bite just out of sheer distress, so be careful not to get yourself injured in the process.

Handle Your Dog Safely

As pet parents, no matter how much we love and are loved by our canine friends, there is always a risk of being bitten or injured by a panicking dog. Remember, while choking, your fur baby isn't rational. They're struggling, and if you try to reach into their mouth, they may bite or shy away. You're trying to help, but they don't know that.

A Dog Biting a Hand Image by Toe Beans

You'll want to restrain your fur baby gently to prevent them from running away, struggling, or making things worse. A second set of hands is always helpful, so one person can restrain while the other attempts to remove the object.

Removing the Object

For partial obstructions, larger obstructions, and cases where you can safely open your dog's mouth and see the object stuck in their throat, you may be able to reach in and grab it. If you have a set of tongs, long tweezers, or another gripping tool, this can make it easier to reach into your fur baby's throat and remove whatever object is caught there. If you don't, your fingers may be enough, but be VERY careful not to accidentally push the object in further.

If you're not sure if you can reach it, or if you don't think you can get a grip, don't try; move on to the next option immediately.

Note: Be exceptionally careful of anything that could be sharp, like a chunk of bone. Things like toys and balls are designed to not be sharp and won't puncture the mouth or throat, but something like a broken piece of bone or a stick can lacerate the inside of the mouth or the throat. You don't want to cut or scrape them removing it if you can help it.

Attempting to Remove a Stuck Object Image by Toe Beans

Labradors and a few other breeds have a cavity in the top of their mouths where an object can become stuck. This cavity makes it less likely that the lodged object is going to hinder their breathing, but it still causes distress, and the object will still obviously need to be removed.

"Some dogs, such as Labradors, have an additional cavity at the top of their mouth where objects can become lodged. If a solid object is lodged at the back of the throat (e.g., rawhide or a pig's ear), one person should hold the mouth open extremely carefully (try to press their lips over their teeth to protect your fingers) and another reach into the dog's mouth with tweezers or forceps to grasp the item and remove it. Do not push at the object with your fingers as you may lodge it deeper – it may be possible to dislodge rawhide with tweezers. Do not stick your fingers down the throat or finger sweep to try and locate an object, as this is likely to cause damage to the delicate tissues at the back of the throat." - firstaidforpets.com

A second option for all breeds, if the object is large, like a chunk of rawhide or a tennis ball, is to do an external extraction technique, when you push the item out by doing a maneuver on their throat.

You’ll begin by laying you pup on their back, then using two thumbs at the base of their throat, press upwards, looking to find the object and force it up and out of their mouth.

Check out this step-by-step demonstration of this saving technique:

Performing the Canine Heimlich Maneuver

The Heimlich maneuver is a way of dislodging something stuck in a person's throat. Also known as abdominal thrusts, in humans, you perform it by slapping the person on the back between the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand and, if that alone doesn't work, grasping them from behind and firmly squeezing their stomach to provide force from beneath the lodged object and get it free.

Canine abdominal thrusts or doggy Heimlich is a similar but different procedure.

Canine Heimlich Maneuver Image by Toe Beans

Here's how to perform the Heimlich maneuver based on your dog’s size:

For small dogs:

  • Hold the dog upside down by the legs and shake downwards gently but firmly 3-4 times. This feels cartoonish, like you're shaking money out of someone's pockets, but it's effective.
  • Alternatively, hold the dog firmly with their back to your stomach. Grasp them such that your hands are below their rib cage, and pull in and up firmly. Your goal is, again, to create internal pressure and force the object up and out.

For large dogs:

  • Hold your dog's backside up with their head downwards and their hind legs up towards you. Lift their hind legs like a wheelbarrow.
  • Use the same basic procedure to put pressure on their abdomen, forcing the object up and out.
  • Alternatively, lay them down on their side, with their back against your knees. Pull in on their abdomen; the same procedure as above, just from the side instead. This is most useful for giant breeds.

Check out this great video demonstration of the Heimlich technique:

If this works, great! If not, make sure to rush your dog to the vet ASAP. They have tools that can make it easier to remove a stuck object, the training to do so quickly, and additional facilities to help resuscitate your dog if they've stopped breathing entirely.

What If Your Dog Stopped Breathing?

If you’ve been able to remove the obstruction, but your dog has stopped breathing, you should immediately begin CPR.

Canine CPR involves repeated compressions on the chest of the dog to stimulate the heart and lungs into operating again. You need to be hard and fast, at 100-120 compressions per minute (which is just under two per second), making sure your dog's chest springs back fully after each compression. Perform 30 of these – so, fifteen seconds – before giving rescue breaths.

Owner Helping a Choking Dog Image by Toe Beans

Rescue breaths are a way of using your lungs to force air into theirs. Close their mouth, cover their nose with your mouth, and exhale into their nose until you see their chest rise. Do this twice.

Alternate between 30 compressions and 2 breaths while heading for the emergency vet. Don't stop unless your dog starts breathing again on their own.

Here's a guide from the Red Cross on pet CPR for more detailed instructions.

If You Got the Object Out, Do You Still Need a Vet?

Yes.

Having something stuck in your dog's throat is a traumatic experience. Not only mentally, but physically too.

In the best cases, there's no lasting internal damage. There may be some soreness in their throat, and they may feel uncomfortable while the inflammation subsides, but often no additional action is needed.

Vet Treating a Dog Image by Toe Beans

In other cases, though, the item that was lodged may have done damage on the way going in or coming out.

  • Your dog might have a cut, laceration, puncture, or other wound inside their throat that needs attention. This could need stitches, or it could need emergency surgery in the worst cases.
  • If your dog was stuck without oxygen for too long, they may need additional attention to help nurse them back to health. This isn't usually the kind of attention you can give them at home.

In any case, always take your dog in for a vet check-up after a choking incident to make sure nothing is wrong. They'll do an inspection, and they can help repair any damage that occurred, administer painkillers if necessary, and even fluids and other treatments if required.

There's nothing quite so stressful as a choking dog, but with the right training and quick thinking, you can save their life.

If you ever have any non-medically-urgent questions or concerns, please feel free to leave me a comment down below! I may not be a vet, but I'm always more than happy to assist you and your furry friends however I can.

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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