What do you do if your dog is choking?

January 8th, 2015
What do you do if your dog is choking?

Dogs, like children, can get into all sorts of trouble – especially if they find objects that may be harmful or even fatal. Kylie Baracz discovers what you should do if you think your dog is choking.

What are the common objects dogs choke on?

It depends on the size of the dog, but for a complete choke (eg, 100 per cent of the dog’s airflow is obstructed) things that are just big enough to lodge in the windpipe or the back of the throat, such as ping pong balls, corn cobettes and textiles (eg, bits of clothing), are reasonably common, as are tampons and avocado pits, explains Dr Joanne Sillince from Pets Australia.

“For a partial choke (some air is still getting through), this can be almost anything!” says Dr Sillince. “These include textiles, balls, squeakers from toys or whole small pet toys, splintered cooked bones, fishing lines, socks, and children’s toys – really, whatever that naughty dog has got into that he shouldn’t!”

What are the symptoms owners should look for?

Dr Sillince says the symptoms are quite apparent if your dog is choking. The pet is in a state of complete panic; often frothing at the mouth, squealing and thrashing its head around, pawing at its face and you may hear snorting or air sounds in a partial choke. “It’s probably the scariest pet first aid emergency that there is!” she says.

In a complete choke situation, no air is getting in, so the pet usually faints. Dr Sillince says it’s extremely important that you get your dog to the vet as you have only a minute or two to fix the situation before it becomes fatal.

In a partial choke, it depends on the amount of air the pet is actually getting in or out, says Dr Sillince. “If most of the air is getting through, the pet will have enough air to really panic, and these dogs can be quite vicious as they throw their heads about and scratch and paw at their faces. If very little air is getting through, they tend to behave like a complete choke.” However, in this case, if the pet faints, it will still be getting some air and will stop panicking.

What should owners do if their dog is choking?

  1. Try and keep the dog as calm as possible – the more the dog panics, the faster it will faint or the less likely you are to be able to assess what’s going on.
  2. If the animal has a partial choke but is still getting enough air to function, the best thing to do is just calm the animal and take it to the local veterinarian instantly. They have all the equipment you need.
  3. If you can see a foreign body and it’s a complete blockage (ie, the pet has NO air getting through and has probably fainted), you can try: (a) The pet version of the “Heimlich manoeuvre” (we don’t do back slaps generally for dogs because their chest is a different shape than humans, but you can try this method for broad-chested breeds like Bulldogs). If you are doing the Heimlich, remember that the pet will probably vomit (and you should keep this out of the windpipe!) and you get the most pressure the first time around. (b) You can try and massage it out of the back of the throat from OUTSIDE the pet – getting beneath it and massaging upward. DO NOT do this through the mouth, as this often just pushes the foreign body further down. (c) If you have forceps or haemostats on hand, you can gently try to remove it – however, do not force the foreign body further down.
  4. If the pet has a complete choke and these things aren’t working, get your vet on the phone and have them talk you through how to do a tracheotomy – which can save an animal’s life.

BEWARE! If you remove the foreign object, especially if the animal has fainted, the dog will often take a huge gulp of air – and then bite you, so you must be careful. “As the brain recovers from a faint, it’s normal for the “aggression” centres of the brain to recover faster than the “good behaviour” centres, and in addition the pet may see you as the person that “hurt” it. So keep yourself safe as well!” recommends Dr Sillince.

Never try to remove fishing line with hook attached as you can tear the pet’s throat. If your dog is choking on a fishing line, call your vet for advice on this and/or cut the fishing line out and leave the hook in place if you can.

Other concerns

We tend to think of a choke as a blockage by something physical, but there are other reasons why air can’t get into the lungs. These include:

  • An anaphylactic allergic reaction that can “make a pet’s throat close over” which eventually behaves as a complete choke
  • A bee or wasp sting at the back of the mouth or tongue that can cause swelling big enough to “close the throat over” without any allergic reaction and without any visible foreign body present
  • Some chemicals (the most notable one being 1080 – a commonly used fox bait) also stops air getting to the brain, but without any effect on the “throat” at all.

If you think your dog is suffering from any of the above, please make sure to visit your vet immediately.

Some breeds (eg, Bulldogs, Pekingese, etc) live in a 24/7 state of partial choke because their soft palates are too long and their nostrils too closed over – so they never get enough air for normal function, and may pant at rest or have very low ability to exercise.

Boehringer Ingelheim has released a First Aid for Pets (Australia) app to help pet owners with emergencies. The free app has been designed to save the lives of dogs and cats (as well as improve the health outcomes in those situations which are painful but unlikely to be life threatening). To download the app from either Apple or Google go to the app store and type in First Aid for Pets Australia.

Pets Australia pet first aid course

Pets Australia holds an intensive, one-day course that gives dog owners confidence that they can deal with all the most common, and many of the rarer, first aid emergencies in their pets. “This includes what’s the same and different to humans, and covers age and breed issues too,” says Dr Sillince. Visit petsaustralia.org for more information.

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