Puppies are full of curiosity about the world around them, and they like to explore their surroundings by tasting, chewing, and picking up objects in their mouths. A puppy can chose when it plays with or tries to eat a bone, toy, or ball but accidentally inhales it instead.
Normally, when a puppy swallows something, such as a bite of food or a treat, it travels down the esophagus into the stomach. The windpipe—or trachea—is located just below the opening of the esophagus in a puppy’s neck, and sometimes an object that a puppy is attempting to swallow or chew can enter the trachea instead. When this happens, the object can block the windpipe and prevent the puppy from being able to take a breath and get oxygen. The windpipe could become completely or partially blocked, but in either case, your puppy could die from lack of oxygen, or asphyxiation.
A puppy who is choking will show signs of distress, including:
- Pawing at the face and neck
- Rubbing the face on the ground
- Pale or blue gums (gums should normally be pink)
- Restlessness, panic
- Increased noise when trying to breathe
- Gasping, coughing, or retching
- Inability to inhale
- Fainting and loss of consciousness
If your puppy is choking, you can administer emergency first aid to try to clear the blockage and save your dog’s life. If the blockage is removed and your puppy is able to breathe again, it is still important to seek immediate veterinary care to assess for trauma to the respiratory tract and avoid any complications from the choking episode.
Causes of Choking in Puppies
Choking occurs when a puppy accidentally inhales an object that blocks the windpipe and prevents air from getting into the lungs. Causes of choking include bones, fragments of toys or other household items, rawhide chews, rocks, cat toys, baby toys, and balls that can completely block off the windpipe. Even kibble and treats can be a choking hazard if your puppy eats very fast or tends to swallow foods whole. The size of the items that a puppy can choke on vary depending on the size of the puppy, but in general any object that is small enough to be swallowed but large enough to block the throat can potentially cause a puppy to choke.
The symptoms of choking can appear similar to other respiratory conditions, but the treatments are very different. If first aid for choking is administered to a puppy who is not choking, this can cause injury to the throat or respiratory tract. Other respiratory conditions that may be confused with choking include reverse sneezing, laryngeal paralysis, and respiratory infections like kennel cough that can appear as retching, gagging, and coughing.
If your puppy was recently eating, chewing on something, or playing with a toy and suddenly appears to have trouble breathing, it's time to check if it's choking. If you suspect your puppy is choking, try calling your puppy’s name or getting your puppy’s attention in some other way. If the puppy is able to stop the current behavior and return to normal behavior, choking is unlikely. If your puppy continues to show symptoms of distress or discomfort, it is likely the puppy is choking and require immediate assistance.
Seek immediate veterinary assistance by taking your puppy to the nearest veterinary clinic or emergency hospital. If you are too far away from a veterinarian and your puppy is struggling to breathe, you can attempt the following first aid measures to remove the obstruction.
If your puppy is conscious:
- Keep the pup cool and calm and transport to a veterinary hospital as quickly as possible. Turn on the air conditioning in the car.
- Do not insert your fingers into the puppy’s mouth and try to dislodge the item. You can severely injury your hands and fingers when the puppy is conscious, due to fear and panic and the puppy’s own struggles to remove the item.
- Perform a standing Heimlich maneuver: For a small puppy, hold your pup’s back against your stomach (head up, paws down), and find the soft hollow under the ribs. Your closed fist should fit into this spot. Pull up and in two or three times toward your own stomach, using a thrusting motion. Remove the object once it is expelled.
- If your pup is large, use the kneeling Heimlich. Lay the puppy down on one side and kneel behind the puppy’s back. Place your closed fist in the hollow under the rib cage, and push upward and inward sharply, in the direction of the pup’s head and your knees. Remove the object once it is expelled.
- If your puppy has stopped breathing, perform rescue breaths by laying your puppy on one side, sealing the mouth by putting two hands around the lips, and breathing into the nose until you see the chest rise.
If your puppy is unconscious:
- Pull the tongue out straight and open the mouth widely. The saliva will be very slippery and using a cloth can help to grip and move the tongue out of the way.
- Perform a finger sweep and check for any objects at the back of the throat. Use your finger in a sweeping motion from the side of the mouth to the center to try to dislodge the obstruction (without pushing the object further into the throat). You can also use tongs or pliers to try to grasp the object and gently pull it out. Be aware that there is a firm bone and cartilage structure in the throat (the Adam’s apple) that is normal and must not be pulled out, so be certain that you are pulling on a foreign object and not the bones in the throat.
- If this is not successful, perform a standing or kneeling Heimlich maneuver.
- If you have dislodged the item and your puppy is not breathing, begin rescue breaths.
- If a ball or round object is completely blocking the windpipe, you can perform the External Extraction Technique (XXT) as follows:
- Place the unconscious pup on his back and straddle your pup’s body. Position the pup’s head and neck so that they are straight and the airway is parallel to the floor.
- Locate the windpipe, which feels like a ringed tube in the throat, and feel where the ball or round object is trapped. Locate the hinges of the jawbone on either side of the throat.
- Form an open diamond shape with your hands, palms facing down. Place your thumbs just under the ball, and hold both sides of the jaw with your fingers.
- Using your thumbs, push down and out against the ball using a J-shaped stroke in the direction of the pup’s mouth.
- Perform two rescue breaths once the ball is dislodged. Continue breaths if your puppy doesn’t start breathing
- Take your pup to a veterinarian.
How to Prevent Choking
The best way to reduce the risk of choking is by preventing access to items that are choking hazards.
- Supervise your puppy’s playtime, and do not allow access to toys or items that are small enough to swallow and large enough to block the pup’s throat.
- Immediately discard and replace damaged and chewed-up toys.
- Secure cabinets, drawers, and containers that may contain easy-to-swallow items.
- Monitor your puppy’s growth. Toys that were appropriately sized when the pup was smaller may become hazards later.
- Keep your puppy away from cat toys and baby toys.
- If your puppy eats very fast and swallows kibble whole, use slow feeder bowls to encourage chewing.
- Choking often occurs in situations like playing fetch with balls in the park. Do not allow puppies to play with any balls that will fit down their throat.
Even if your puppy seems fully recovered after choking, it is still very important to take your pup immediately to a veterinarian. Choking can cause other medical issues that require treatment, including trauma to the throat and mouth, fluid build-up in the lungs, and lacerations to the tongue. Your pup may have a sore, painful mouth and throat after a choking episode and may require soft food during recovery.