First aid for dogs: choking

Learning first aid for dogs could save your pet’s life one day, says Emma Hammett.

For many people, their dog truly is their best (and most loyal) friend. Whilst they provide amazing companionship, they can also get into all sorts of scraps and scrapes, eating things they shouldn’t eat and going places they shouldn’t go. The biggest problem that most dog owners face is that their canine companion can’t tell them what they’ve done or where it hurts.

With their boundless energy and enthusiasm, dogs are bound to injure themselves at some stage, but many owners would struggle to know what to do if something were to happen. Vet’s bills can be extremely expensive – and they may not always be close at hand when you need them.

With their boundless energy and enthusiasm, dogs are bound to injure themselves at some stage, but many owners would struggle to know what to do if something were to happen. Vet’s bills can be extremely expensive – and they may not always be close at hand when you need them.

That’s where a First Aid for Dogs course becomes invaluable. It gives dog owners a real insight into what’s going on with their dog, helping them know when they can do something to help – and when they really need to get to a vet fast. Courses teach participants how to care for an unconscious dog, as well as all about commonly occurring injuries and illnesses including choking, bleeding, drowning, fitting, poisoning and much more. But more than offering purely practical advice, these courses also empower dog owners with the confidence to be able to act quickly in a medical emergency. Even having just some basic knowledge can prove invaluable.

Here’s just one example of how first aid might help and could save your dog’s life.

A choking dog

Dogs will chew on anything, from plastic bags and balls to socks and toys – in fact, anything they can get hold of. If it goes down the wrong way, it may leave them unable to breathe.
Choking occurs when something gets stuck in the back of the dog’s throat and blocks their airway. When the airway is partially blocked, the animal may start retching, pacing back and forth and pawing at their mouth. If their airway becomes totally blocked, they may be unable to make any sound at all.

Signs to watch out for

Your pet may show clear signs of distress and paw at their mouth, gag or retch and drool.  They are also likely to panic and may become wheezy. If they are struggling to breathe, they may appear to cough, struggle breathing, and their mucous membranes may start turning blue. If untreated they will collapse and die.

First Aid for Choking

If your pet is unable to breathe, every second counts. Start first aid immediately, but if you are unable to dislodge the object within a couple of minutes do not delay getting them straight to the vet.

Firstly, gently restrain your dog to protect yourself, but do not muzzle them as they are struggling to breathe and this will make things worse. Choking dogs are likely to struggle, potentially causing harm to themselves and to you, they may thrash around and bite in their panic.
Open the mouth and look inside. An object in the mouth such as a stick or piece of bone may be able to be removed with a large pair of tweezers or by reaching into the dog’s mouth, with the help of another person. DO NOT put yourself at risk of being bitten.  If this is a in any way a possibility, take the animal straight to the vet to remove the object.

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.

Large objects, such as balls or pieces of rawhide, can sometimes be dislodged by placing firm pressure with both thumbs underneath the jaw at the base of the throat and pushing forwards.
If the above, hasn’t worked:

For a SMALL Dog
Pick the dog up by its thighs and gently shake 3 or 4 times in a downwards motion.

For a LARGE Dog
Try and support the dog’s head downwards against yourself or lift their hind legs like a wheelbarrow.
If the dog is standing, put your arms around its belly, make a fist with one hand and with your other hand on top push firmly up and forward, just behind the rib cage.
If the dog is lying down, place one hand on the back for support and use the other hand to squeeze the abdomen upwards and forwards.
Check the dog’s mouth and remove any objects that may have been dislodged with your fingers
If this hasn’t worked, you need to phone the vet and get your pet to them ASAP.

In most cases, getting rid of the choking obstruction allows the dog to begin breathing again on its own. Remember that, as they are scared, they are very likely to bite – even when the object has been removed.  They will also pick up on your panicked heart beat which will add to their fear and anxiety.

If your dog is unconscious and not breathing you may wish to begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation at approximately 120 chest compressions per minute; 30 compressions to 2 breaths and continue these until the vet can take over.
Whether the item is dislodged or not, it is essential that the animal is thoroughly checked by a vet, as there may be damage to the inside of the mouth or throat once the object is removed, or damage to their ribs or internal organs if you have attempted a Heimlich Manoeuvre.

Trauma to the inside of the mouth or throat can take many days to heal and can also make it hard or painful for the dog to eat their regular food. Making the normal diet soft by running it through the blender with warm water may help. Your vet may dispense pain relief to help during the recovery period.
Suffocation and strangulation have similar symptoms to choking, but you are likely to be able to spot the cause relatively easily. Strangulation can be caused by a cable, string or other item wrapped around the neck.  Carefully use a pair of scissors to cut the object. Suffocation is most commonly caused by plastic bags.

Emma Hammett

Emma Hammett is an experienced nurse and first aid trainer, she has worked in many areas including A&E, Children’s Ward, Burns Unit and Acute medical and surgical wards before becoming hospital manager of Hammersmith and Charing Cross Hospitals. In 2007, she founded First Aid for Life and is shortly going to publish her second book, Burns, Falls and Emergency Calls – The ultimate guide to the prevention and treatment of childhood accidents.
Emma is also the founder of First Aid for Pets offering first aid training courses for your pets https://firstaidforpets.net/
Emma Hammett

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