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The essentials

  • “Harmless” foods could be the culprit for choking — Treats like bones and rawhide (unless they are specifically and safely designed for pet digestion) can splinter or lodge in your dog’s mouth and throat, causing obstructions and other problems.
  • Keep an eye out during mealtimes — Something as simple as eating too fast can cause your dog to have something stuck in its throat, resulting in a possible medical emergency.
  • Be choosy about chewy sizes — Chew toys and balls are fun and great for your pet, but too-small toys can be swallowed, possibly leading to a blockage.

That cough you’re hearing from your dog could be more than simply seasonal allergies. Coughing, spluttering, and difficulty breathing could mean that your pet is experiencing an esophageal obstruction — which could be dangerous if not dealt with immediately. Here’s what to do if your dog has something stuck in its throat.

Signs of an esophageal obstruction in dogs

Not sure if your dog is experiencing an esophageal foreign body obstruction? Here are a few signs to watch for. 

  1. Difficulty swallowing. You shouldn’t be able to hear your dog gulping, see “neck stretching,” or see several attempts at swallowing when your pet’s eating or chewing. If you notice this, check your pup’s throat to ensure nothing is stuck. 
  2. Excessive drooling. Certain breeds, like the bloodhound, are known for drooling puddles. However, you know your pet best. If you notice puddles of drool that exceed the normal “drool amount,” or foamy drool, check for a blockage.
  3. Coughing. Often sounding like a “hrrrmphhhckk” noise, coughing can indicate esophageal irritation in general. However, if you hear it happening alongside any of the symptoms on this list, it’s time to check your dog’s throat. 
  4. Gagging and retching. Dogs have a strong survival instinct and will try to gag up whatever might be blocking or irritating their throat. If they gag uncontrollably or exceed four or more times in a row, seek veterinary support and check for a blockage. 
  5. Mouth pawing. Dogs use their paws to signal a lot of things, including distress. Generally, mouth pawing isn’t common unless there’s an irritant or severe damage. If you see this happening, seek help from your veterinarian. 
  6. Vomiting. An esophageal obstruction commonly results in vomiting as your pet tries to dislodge the offending object. However, vomiting in this context might seem unproductive, bringing up little to no food as a result of a possible blockage. 
  7. Loss of appetite. If your dog has something stuck in throat, they may simply refuse to eat. This is especially true if they are experiencing pain or swelling from an obstruction. Make sure to monitor any abnormal changes in appetite, and seek veterinary support if it continues.
  8. Distressed behavior. This can look different for every pet. However, general body language signs include lethargy, restlessness (shown by pacing), dragging of the dog’s hind legs, and excessive, heavy panting.

What it means when your dog has something stuck in their throat

There are two primary types of obstructions: a full esophageal obstruction and a partial esophageal obstruction. Both can cause severe complications in canines if they’re left untreated.

  • Partial obstructions: These happen when there’s something small stuck in your dog’s throat, possibly causing irritation, but not completely blocking food and water flow. These are still considered an emergency, as they can progress and cut off your dog’s airflow if left unaddressed.
  • Full obstructions: This type of blockage occurs if there is something that is completely blocking food and water flow in your dog’s esophagus. Symptoms are usually more pronounced with this type of obstruction.

🚨 Obstructions can become serious quickly. Seek immediate veterinary attention if you think that your dog is experiencing an esophageal obstruction.

What causes esophageal obstructions in dogs

There are many possible causes of esophageal obstructions. Knowing which trigger your dog is affected by can help your pet to create a treatment plan quickly. 

Here are some of the most common causes of esophageal obstructions: 

  • Medication administration issues. If you’ve recently given your dog medication, there’s a chance that it didn’t go down properly or dissolve with enough water or saliva. This alone can cause irritation that can mimic or be a true esophageal blockage. 
  • Medical conditions. Certain conditions, like esophagitis , can cause swelling of your dog’s throat and esophagus. 
  • Impaction from food. If your dog is a fast eater or doesn’t like to chew that tasty bit of food, they could be at risk for this blockage trigger.
  • Foreign object obstruction. Toys, bones, rawhide, fishing lines, and certain foods can all block your dog’s throat, either partially or completely. If leftover time, even minor blockages can lead to large amounts of scar tissue in your dog’s esophagus.

How veterinarians treat esophageal obstructions

If your dog has something stuck in their throat, or your veterinarian suspects an esophageal obstruction, they’ll get it out using specialty medical tools. Primary methods of treatment include: 

  • Blind retrieval. This form of retrieval uses long forceps to lift the object out of the throat and might be used if there is no serious damage, as minor damage is less likely to cause swelling or an emergency. Vets can also use this method to push the blockage into the stomach, which they may opt to do if it is safe, food-related, or too far to lift from the mouth safely. 
  • Endoscopy. During an endoscopy , your veterinarian will place a tube down your dog’s throat with a camera on the end, allowing them to get full visualization of your dog’s throat. This may be done under light anesthesia to keep your pet from moving. 
  • Surgery. Your vet can perform either an esophagostomy or a gastrotomy to remove objects from the esophagus or the stomach, respectively. The choice of surgery type depends on your surgeon’s goal This is often a last resort, as it is considered to be invasive. Generally speaking, surgery is done under general anesthesia to keep your pet as comfortable as can be. 

Your pet may need intravenous fluids (IVs) if they’ve vomited regularly over a rapid period, replacing key liquids and electrolytes lost during the process. Your veterinarian can advise based on your dog’s specific case.

🚨Pet owners should know basic pet first aid and safety techniques to address blockages from both small and larger objects. Areas of study should include the Heimlich maneuver, how to do a physical examination of your dog’s throat and mouth area, and the “eXternal eXtraction” technique.

How to prevent esophageal obstructions

Preventative strategies are key when it comes to managing your dog’s risk for esophageal obstructions. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to help keep your furry friend as safe as possible. 

  • Monitor and slow down mealtimes. Try to watch your dog as they eat, monitoring for too-large bites, fast eating, or refusal to chew. Don’t push your dog to eat quickly or hurry them out the door, as this can lead to choking or throat irritation. 
  • Be savvy about toy choices. While there are plenty of dog toys on the market, not all of them are safe. Be sure to research prior to buying and buy in alignment with your dog’s size and age. For example, puppies who love to chew shouldn’t be given toys that are easily destroyed or full of intestine-blocking fluff.
  • Teach your pet to “leave it.” Leave it is a useful command that can stop your dog just before they take a bite out of something harmful.
  • Stay up-to-date on check-ups. Regular veterinary check-ins help you keep tabs on your dog’s overall health, ensuring that you are aware of possible esophageal conditions that can lead to obstructions and irritation later on. 

A blockage of your dog’s esophagus can be serious if it’s left unaddressed. In severe cases, it can cause large amounts of scarring on the wall of the esophagus, disruption of the digestive tract, and several other long-term problems for your pet. In the best-case scenario, your pet may experience trauma from the blockage or regurgitation.

While prevention is key to avoiding this situation for your pet, seeking immediate veterinary care can bring your pet out of crisis and jumpstart the healing process if they have already begun to choke. Be sure to come to the emergency vet prepared with as much information as you can to help them to act quickly. 

Frequently asked questions

How can I clear my dog’s throat?

If you notice clinical signs of esophageal blockages (such as regurgitation, foamy saliva pooling from your dog’s mouth, or coughing), you may need to clear their throat. Our veterinary review team recommends doing a quick visual check and sweeping the dog’s mouth with your fingers, clearing anything you can see. Then, promptly load them up and take them to your veterinarian for a thorough check-up to avoid complications later on. 

How do you check if my dog has something stuck in his throat?

A visual inspection of your dog’s mouth is the best way to see if your dog has something stuck in their throat. Their esophagus is a muscular tube, so obstructions have the potential to cause visible constriction and swelling. 

If it’s safe to do so, help your dog open their jaws and shine a light in. If you can see anything visual, attempt to sweep it out with two hooked fingers. If you can’t see anything, monitor for other symptoms. In either case, pet owners should seek veterinary care for their pets to help get to the bottom of the issue quickly. 

How do I know if my dog has a blockage in his throat?

Blockage symptoms can vary by situation and by pet size (i.e., small dogs vs. larger breed dogs). Watching for blockage symptoms like foamy drool, excessive drool, coughing, or retching is a good idea. Additionally, if you suspect a blockage, it’s best to seek veterinary care for your peace of mind and your dog’s health. 

Why is my dog coughing like something is stuck in his throat?

While a choking dog might cough due to a piece of foreign material in your dog’s throat, there are plenty of other reasons your pet might cough. Coughing and “sneezing” can be signs of generalized illness, allergies, or more benign causes, they can also be signs of respiratory disease or something more serious: such as kennel cough.