How To Tell If Your Dog Is Choking

This advice could save your pet’s life.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dog will eat anything — and that means anything. Bones, rubber balls, hair ties, earplugs — if a pup can fit it in her mouth, it’s fair game.

While this habit is frustrating to dog owners for a myriad of reasons (where did my new earrings go again?), it can also be dangerous to the animal in question. If swallowed, these foreign objects can cause serious issues in the dog’s digestive tract, and, in rare occurrences, they can be inhaled, lodging in the windpipe and causing the dog to choke.

Pet owners need to act fast at the very first signs of choking. Not sure what to do when your dog gets something stuck in her airway? Here are some commonly asked questions about how to deal with an emergency the right way.

How can I tell if my dog is choking?

Every kid learns the universal hand signals to indicate when food gets stuck (they’re pasted in every restaurant by law), but with animals it’s not always so clear, notes Dr. Erika Loftin, a critical care specialist at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, Oregon.

“Choking can be mistaken for a variety of other activities, including coughing, gagging, reverse sneezing or vomiting,” Loftin tells The Dodo. “If the animal is able to engage in any normal activities/interactions, it is unlikely to actually be choking.”

The real trouble occurs when your pet experiences a life-threatening airway obstruction. Pet owners should look for signs such as “discolored tongue or gums (blue, gray, white), high-pitched squeaking or whistling noises (if any air is able to get through), anxiety or panic, and loss of consciousness (if it goes on for very long),” Loftin explains. If your pet is panicking and pawing at her mouth, that is a clear sign that she may need immediate attention.

What can I do to help my dog at home?

A quick search online will turn up numerous recommendations and videos for how to dislodge the object with your finger or perform a (not yet veterinarian-approved) doggy version of the Heimlich maneuver — but a pet owner’s first priority should be getting their pup to the vet for a professional evaluation.

“Unfortunately, there isn't much that an owner can SAFELY do at home if the animal is really choking,” Loftin says. “I do not recommend CPR at home unless the owner has specific veterinary training. Methods like a hand/finger sweep of the throat are likely to either injure the owner or the animal.” If your dog is really choking, there may not always be time to get him to the vet, so it is important to have the requisite training. The American Red Cross offers online cat and dog first aid courses, and you can also find urgent care classes near you for a more hands-on experience. While these courses are certainly not a replacement for veterinary care, they can help in an emergency.

While pet owners naturally want to do everything in their power to help their dog, they may end up doing more harm than good if they are not properly trained, Loftin notes. “I have seen animals injured by inappropriate CPR and other attempted resuscitation techniques ... If truly choking, the animal should be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible.”

When is a trip to the vet a must?

“An emergency trip to the vet is necessary if not breathing or breathing with extreme effort, coughing up fluid, discolored tongue and gums, or loss of consciousness,” Loftin advises. Even if the pet appears to recover from these symptoms, or experiences a prolonged fit of coughing or gagging, Loftin recommends visiting a veterinarian to find out the underlying cause.

At the vet, a dog or cat who is actually choking will receive anesthesia, followed by an examination of their airway. The object will be removed and the pup will receive oxygen as needed. Recovery can be quick if there aren’t any complications, or can take several days depending on the severity of the situation and underlying cause of the accident.

How can I prevent my dog from choking?

To prevent a future emergency, Loftin recommends treating your pup like a toddler — and taking similar precautions. “Use common sense regarding what you allow your dog to eat and play with, and monitor closely,” she warns. “While choking is an uncommon veterinary emergency, it can be fatal ... Many more dogs will actually swallow a foreign object (rather than inhaling it), but this can also be dangerous and expensive to treat.”