When thinking of the medical emergencies that can befall your dog, choking probably isn't at the top of the list. Most dog owners have seen their pets gobble down food or treats a little too quickly and start gagging a bit, but it usually passes quickly. However, sometimes, the problem can persist, and choking can become a life-threatening emergency for your pet.
Choking in dogs can be caused by things other than simple blockages as well, so dog owners need to understand the possible causes and what to do if your dog starts to choke.
Choking symptoms in dogs can vary, but common ones include coughing, making a spluttering sound and gagging. Dogs with something in their throats may paw or scratch at their mouth and neck, often in a frantic manner. Choking dogs often seem agitated and may pace around. Their breathing may become labored or stop entirely. If their throats are mostly or fully blocked, they will eventually become weak and lose consciousness.
The most common cause of choking in dogs is simply getting something stuck in the dog's throat. This often happens if dogs eat their food too fast, as they may try to swallow food before it is fully chewed or take too much food in each bite. Toys and chews can also be a choking hazard. Collars that are too tight or dogs pulling too hard against their collars can also lead to choking, though it should clear up once the collar is removed or pulling stops.
Sometimes, dogs can choke due to an underlying medical condition. One common cause is a collapsing trachea. When this occurs, the windpipe stops being able to support itself and begins to get floppy and compressed, which temporarily cuts off the dog's air supply. Allergic reactions and certain infectious diseases can also cause the dog's throat to swell up enough to put pressure on the trachea and block it.
If your dog begins to choke on a foreign object, the first thing to do is to clear the dog's mouth. Gently open the dog's mouth and swipe your fingers as far back as you can get them. If you can feel a foreign object, gently push or pull it out of the mouth. This is often enough to resolve mild cases.
Most people are aware of the Heimlich maneuver as a way to clear choking in humans, but it's possible to do it to dogs as well. If your dog is choking on a foreign object and you weren't able to clear it with your hand, begin by giving your dog five firm, hard taps between the shoulder blades. That may be enough to clear the foreign object. If not, lift your dog up by the hind legs into a wheelbarrow-type pose, then put your arms around his abdomen. Give five hard presses to his abdomen just below the ribs, then put him down and try to clear his mouth with your finger and give five taps on the shoulder blades again. This can injure your dog, so only use it in serious cases.
It's a good idea to call your vet any time your dog chokes on a foreign object badly enough to need help clearing it. Even if you successfully remove the object, it may have damaged your dog's throat or caused other complications.
Call your vet if your dog seems to have frequent, minor bouts of choking as well. There may be an underlying cause that can be treated.
Although any dog can choke, some dogs are more likely to have problems with it than others. Dogs that rush through their meals and try to eat inedible objects, such as toys, clothing, and trash, are, particularly at risk. Collapsing trachea tends to occur most frequently in older, small-breed dogs, particularly if they are overweight.
If your dog tends to eat too quickly, one of the first steps in preventing choking is to slow him down. Buy a slow-feeder bowl that makes your dog have to work to take small bites, or consider using a puzzle feeder that only dispenses a small amount of food at a time. Be sure to monitor your dog when you give toys and chews, and take the toy away when it breaks down into small pieces that your dog may try to swallow.
Overall, the prognosis for foreign-body choking incidents tends to be fairly good. Dogs rarely have their windpipes fully blocked, so even if it takes a few minutes to get to the vet, they often recover fully. If the trachea is fully blocked, the prognosis depends on how quickly the foreign object is removed and the dog is able to breathe again.
If a collapsing trachea causes the choking, the prognosis is more mixed. Although it is rarely fatal, there is also no cure for it, so it may negatively impact your dog's quality of life. However, many dogs can still live a reasonably normal life with some treatment and management changes.
Some conditions can cause symptoms similar to choking. Kennel cough, a highly contagious viral illness, can make dogs cough so hard they may seem to be gagging. Mouth pain, which can be caused by dental problems, an injury, or an object stuck between the teeth, may cause dogs to become agitated and paw at their mouths. Digestive problems can also cause gagging and sputtering.
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