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Dog coughing

The essentials

  • Confirm your pet is choking — Ensure that choking is what’s distressing your dog, and not an unrelated or underlying medical emergency.
  • Stay calm and take action immediately — It may seem scary, but your pet is relying on you to take control of the situation firmly and with a level head.
  • Follow up with your veterinarian — After the obstruction has been removed, call your vet as soon as possible to ensure no other issues arise.

Many of us are familiar with the Heimlich maneuver, a first aid technique involving abdominal thrusts to help clear obstructions from people who are choking. What you might not know is that the long-trusted and lifesaving method can be equally effective in helping choking dogs. Our vet-recommended guide will detail all the important things pet parents should know about safely performing the Heimlich maneuver if your dog is choking.

Is your dog choking?

In the same way that a human may cough to try and remove an object from their throat, so too will dogs. Consistent coughing, sometimes paired with difficulty breathing, is often the result of an obstructed airway. Dogs struggling to breathe may also make panicked movements or paw at their face.

One way to determine if your dog has a blockage is to listen to the sounds they’re making. A choking dog will likely make high-pitched squeaking or whistling noises, followed by coughing and gagging, when they’re in respiratory distress. But, you can’t rely on sounds alone. An obstructed airway may prevent your dog from making any noise at all. In this case, look to see if your dog’s gums or tongue are discolored, as this can be a sign of restricted oxygen flow.

Sometimes in severe cases, your pet may lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen from a  complete airway obstruction. In these cases, it’s important to stay calm, and follow the proper steps outlined below to help your furry friend.

Respond, but don’t panic

While it may be scary as a pet owner, you have to be in control of the situation if you believe your dog is choking. Stay calm and take immediate action in removing the obstruction.

Look inside your dog’s throat and mouth — Identify what is causing the choking. Be careful, as your dog may be in a state of panic and could potentially lash out and hurt either you or themselves.

Do a mouth sweep — Using your index finger, pull out small objects that are easily removable such as small twigs or bone fragments from your dog’s mouth. Also check the roof of the mouth.

Try to remove the object — If it can’t be removed with your fingers alone, try to remove the item with tweezers, but don’t push on the object or it may become lodged further.

Don’t insert anything into their throat —  If you can’t see an object, don’t stick any object, including your fingers, further inside of your dog.

Use the Heimlich maneuver — If you’re unable to get to the emergency vet immediately, begin the process of the Heimlich maneuver on your dog. Be aware of the ways you can do the Heimlich maneuver depending on your dog’s size.

Heimlich maneuver for larger dogs

In an ideal situation, you wouldn’t have to complete the Heimlich maneuver on your pet, but in emergencies there are different methods you can use. If possible, have a vet on the phone to help walk you through the following steps for your large dog.

1. Stand behind your dog — Wrap your arms under their ribs.

2. Make a fist with one hand and cup the other around your fist — Thrust your hands into the soft spot below their ribs and upward towards their ribs five times.

If the object hasn’t dislodged after these steps:

3. Give five sharp blows — Between your dog’s shoulder blades.

4. Pick up your dog’s hind legs — And hold them like a wheelbarrow, hopefully allowing the object to slide forward.

Once the object has been dislodged:

5. Check your dog’s mouth — To ensure there aren’t any other obstructions left behind.

If your large dog is lying down on their side on the floor or is too large or immobile to be lifted against your chest, place one hand on their back and the other on their abdomen. Squeeze their abdomen in and up.

Heimlich maneuver for smaller dogs

While you can utilize the process above for smaller dogs, you can also use another method of the Heimlich maneuver to clear the obstruction.

1. Turn your dog on their back — Use the palm of your hand to apply pressure to the soft spot beneath their ribs and push inwards and upwards five times.

If that doesn’t work, proceed to the next step:

2. Gently lift your dog by the hips/thighs — Swing them from side to side to loosen the object from their throat/mouth.

After the emergency has passed

Once the foreign object has been removed, identify if your dog is breathing normally. If they are having trouble or aren’t responding, give a few breaths into their snout. Should they still not respond, begin dog CPR with chest compressions and rescue breathing and make your way to the vet.

If your dog is breathing, seek veterinary care as soon as possible so they can be examined for any potential mouth/throat injuries or other internal injuries and damage that needs to be addressed.

Preventing future emergencies

Accidents happen and many can’t be prevented, but by keeping these common causes of choking in dogs and precautions in mind, you may prevent them from ever occurring.

  • Kibble size. Certain kibble may be too large or cumbersome for small dogs to consume safely. Always consult the breed size recommendations on the packaging.
  • Toys not made specifically for dogs. Children’s toys or other non-animal specific toys shouldn’t be accessible to dogs. This foreign material can take only a couple of minutes in your pet’s mouth to cause them to choke.
  • Toys that aren’t size-appropriate. Sturdy toys that aren’t easy to shred, break, or rip up are important in preventing access to choking hazards. Squeakers in dog toys can also pose a choking hazard, especially for heavy chewers and toy destroyers. Here are some extra-tough chew toy recommendations for the more aggressive chewer.
  • Edible chew treats. While rawhide treats and bones are beloved by many dogs, these products need to be safe. Take them away once they become too small or sharp, as they may become a potential choking hazard, and never let your dog chew them without supervision.

It’s also important to be aware of your dog’s behaviors, as some of those quirks may make them more susceptible to choking.

  • Dogs with obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety disorders. Dogs with these disorders may chew their toys into small enough pieces to swallow.
  • Dogs that eat quickly. Just as humans who wolf down their food may end up choking, so too can dogs, especially if they were a rescue as those dogs may not have always known where their next meal would come from.
  • Dogs that prefer toy balls. A pooch who prefers playing with balls and retrieving them may accidentally get one lodged in their throat.

Choking can happen to any dog, even those who are diligently watched, but knowing the signs of choking and how to perform the Heimlich maneuver can save a life in an emergency.

Frequently asked questions

What do you do if a dog is choking?

A choking pet can be scary, but don’t panic. Make sure to start with an accurate diagnosis of your pet. Are they actually choking or is something else causing them distress? Instead of choking do they perhaps have kennel cough or some other injury they’re trying to tell you about? If you’ve confirmed that they are choking, the first thing is to check your dog’s airway and the back of the throat to try and locate the object.

Once you’ve done so, try and remove the object from your dog’s throat. If you can’t get the object from the throat or the back of the mouth, call your veterinarian and begin the process of the Heimlich maneuver.

Is there a Heimlich maneuver for dogs?

Yes, and it’s a process that anyone can do if they know the right steps, depending on the size of your dog.

For small dogs, you can hold them on your lap and turn them over to their back. Once in that position, apply pressure using your hand underneath their rib cage and push inwards and upwards five times before turning them onto their side and checking your dog’s mouth.

For large dogs that are standing, you should put your arms around their abdomen and make a fist with one hand, wrapping your other around it. From there, push into the soft part of their abdomen below their ribs up and forward five times—much as you would with a human!

If your large dog is lying down, place one hand on their back and another on their abdomen and push or squeeze up and forward towards their spine.

As with any Heimlich maneuver, make sure you’re checking to see if the obstruction has been removed from your dog’s throat (and is sitting in their mouth) before repeating any steps!

Why do dogs fall over when choking?

Falling over when choking is likely caused by the lack of oxygen being sent to your dog’s brain. Without oxygen, they may become unconscious.

How rare is it for a dog to choke?

The chances of your dog choking are low and more often than not what you may think is your dog choking may be something else entirely. Sometimes reverse sneezing, which sounds like a loud snort, or even swallowing disorders may make it sound as if your dog is choking when in fact there is something else at play.

Still, it’s always important to be vigilant and check your pet’s airway and monitor them to ensure that they aren’t distressed due to choking.

Do dogs panic when choking?

Many often do, especially when they try to dislodge the object themselves and can’t. The best thing that you can do as a pet parent is to stay calm and in control. If you start panicking, your dog will only become more agitated and scared.

Will the Heimlich maneuver work on my cat?

Yes! Much as you would approach the Heimlich on a small dog, you can also do so on your cat.

What can cause my dog to choke?

Unfortunately, plenty of things could potentially create a choking hazard, whether that be a small bone, a piece of food, children’s toys, dog toys, or rawhide. If you have children in the household, you may want to keep your eyes open, as sometimes children give their pets objects that they shouldn’t have access to, which can cause a dog to choke.

But, none of this is an inherent cause for concern. Your pup won’t automatically choke if a rogue slipper or bone is left out, but it’s a good idea for all dog owners to remain vigilant and aware.

How do I learn about pet first aid?

All pet parents should know the basic information and methods of animal first aid, from identifying the first signs of trouble to when to seek assistance in an emergency. Betterpet’s vet-recommended guide on pet first aid offers all the advice you’ll need.