What to do if your dog has something stuck in its throat

What to do if your dog has something stuck in its throat?

Learn how to act fast and when to take your dog to the vet

As a veterinarian, I encounter numerous pet emergencies, but one of the most urgent and distressing for pet owners is when their beloved dog has something stuck in its throat. Understanding what to do in these situations can be the difference between a quick resolution and a serious health emergency.

In this article, we will delve into the crucial steps you should take if you find yourself in this alarming situation. From identifying the signs that your dog is choking to the immediate actions you should take, and when it’s essential to rush to a veterinary clinic, we cover everything you need to know. Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge and confidence to effectively handle this emergency, ensuring the safety and well-being of your furry family member. Let’s explore the vital actions to take when faced with the frightening scenario of your dog having something stuck in its throat.

What causes dogs to choke?

dog choking

In order to help you understand what to do if your dog has something stuck in their throat, I want to start this article with a brief anatomy lesson (it’ll be quick, I promise!)

When we’re talking about a dog’s throat, we are specifically talking about the open structure at the back of the mouth made up of the larynx and pharynx, through which food and liquid, as well as air, will pass…ideally only into the appropriate “pipes”! When your dog eats, swallowed chunks of food pass through the throat and into the esophagus, which leads to the stomach. When your dog breathes, air passes through the throat and into the trachea or windpipe, where it travels to the lungs. 

If a dog attempts to swallow an object or food item that is too large to pass completely down the esophagus, the offending item may become lodged either in the throat or in the oesophagus itself. This is one potential cause of choking, as the trapped object may prevent your dog from being able to breathe normally. 

Alternatively, it’s possible for objects that were intended to be swallowed to accidentally enter the trachea instead. This too can lead to choking, as now a blockage in the airway is present.

It’s reported that more than 200,000 pets present at veterinary clinics every year as a result of choking incidents. The severity of these cases can range from minor and rapidly self-resolving, through to life-threatening. 

Brachycephalic (flat faced) dog breeds such as the Pug and the French Bulldog may be particularly prone to choking, with one study finding that as many as 81% of brachycephalic had reportedly experienced at least one episode. This figure dropped to 31% in flat faced dogs who had undergone surgical enlargement of their nares (the openings of the nostrils) to assist breathing. 

Thankfully, choking appears to be a relatively uncommon cause of death in dogs. Data collected from 15,881 dogs between 1994 and 2004 revealed that choking accounted for 0.1% of deaths in dogs.

Nonetheless, the ability to rapidly recognize and respond to the clinical signs of choking is a crucial skill for pet owners that will help ensure appropriate steps are taken to maximise the chances of a good outcome. Let’s take a look at these clinical signs. 

Symptoms of Choking in Dogs

choking dog

Recognizing the symptoms of choking in dogs is critical for timely intervention; in this section, we will discuss the key signs to watch out for that indicate your dog might be choking.

Signs of choking in dogs include:

  • Sudden onset of persistent coughing 

  • Sudden onset of persistent and unproductive gagging or retching

  • Pawing at the mouth

  • Difficulty breathing, or breathing that is more labored or noisy than usual 

  • Excessive drooling (due to an inability to swallow saliva due to a blocked throat or esophagus)

  • Foaming at the mouth

  • Acting restless or even panicked 

  • A bluish tinge to the gums and/or tongue 

  • Collapse (due to lack of oxygen to the brain)

  • Choking sounds

If your dog is experiencing any of the signs above, it’s important that immediate action is taken. Staying calm and acting quickly is imperative. 

Mild choking: Identification and Actions Steps

If your dog has suddenly developed a persistent cough or is gagging and retching following a meal or playing with a toy, but is otherwise behaving normally, it may be that he or she has something small stuck in their throat or esophagus, or has inhaled something small into the windpipe. Dogs experiencing mild choking can still breathe, and will remain conscious and alert.

Although the majority of cases of mild choking will self-resolve (ie, the dog will clear the blockage on their own without intervention) by the time you reach the vet, it’s still the best course of action to head towards the vet without delay. This is because it’s also possible for a lodged object to shift in such a way that the blockage worsens. 

Stay calm as this will help keep your dog calm; immediately contact your emergency vet to let them know you’re on your way (and why); and transport your dog safely.

Severe Choking: Identification and Action Steps  

With severe choking, your dog may be visibly very distressed and struggling to breathe and/or swallow. They may develop a bluish tinge to the gums and tongue or may faint and collapse due to lack of oxygen. 

Time is obviously of vital importance when it comes to severe choking. You should calmly secure your dog in your vehicle and immediately head to your emergency vet. Call whilst en-route to let them know you’re coming, if it’s possible to do so without compromising safety.

Veterinary Care and Treatment of Choking

vet treating dog choking

Potential choking is always considered an emergency, and your dog should be seen immediately on arrival. A veterinarian will quickly assess your dog’s condition, including the severity of the choking.

If your vet deems that there is a severe blockage in the upper airway, it may be necessary for your dog to undergo an emergency procedure called “tracheostomy” to ensure he or she is able to breathe whilst the blockage is removed. A tracheostomy involves the placement of a tube through the front of your dog’s neck into the windpipe (below the blockage), which acts as a new opening for air to enter and exit the lungs.

If possible, your vet will examine the back of your dog’s mouth and throat (possibly using a device called a laryngoscope) to check for a lodged item. In many cases, sedation or general anaesthetic will be needed in order for your dog to allow this. Imaging may also be required to identify the size and location of the blockage.

Once the blockage has been identified it will need to be removed, either by endoscopy or surgery, or sometimes a combination of both. Since esophageal surgery has a very high complication rate, blockages in the esophagus may be pushed down into the stomach using endoscopy, and then surgically removed from the stomach.

Choking Prevention Tips

food risks for choking in dogs

There are various potential causes of choking in dogs and a number of steps pet owners can take to reduce the risk of something getting stuck in their dog’s throat. 

Play with toys that are destructible (ie, can be broken down by the dog into smaller pieces) or that are of a size that could conceivably get stuck in the throat, should always be supervised. The sticks and branches that many dogs love to chew up also present a choking hazard, and again, supervision is strongly recommended at all times. 

If your dog is a vacuum cleaner when it comes to meals, invest in a slow feeder bowl to reduce the chances of choking on food. Very hard food items such as bully sticks and rawhide chews are a high risk item for choking, and are not worth the risk! Provide safer (and softer) treats instead. Other treat such as turkey necks can be suitable, but only if prepared correctly.

Bully sticks are bad, but bones are the worst offender of all and should never be fed. One 2019 study assessed 349 cases where a dog needed to have a swallowed object removed from the esophagus, and found that a whopping 77% of cases involved bones!

FAQ

Should I be worried if my dog swallowed something?

This depends entirely on what your dog swallowed! If your dog has swallowed any object, the best course of action is to phone your vet for advice. Provide a detailed description of the item that was swallowed, as well as any symptoms your dog is experiencing, in order to help your vet in advising you as to the best course of action. 

How long should I wait for my dog to pass something?

It usually takes around 12-24 hours for ingesta (anything your dog swallows, usually food) to pass through the entire digestive tract from entry to exit. This is not a hard and fast rule, and sometimes passage will be quicker or slower.  How long you should wait for your dog to pass an object that has been accidentally swallowed depends on the object. It’s always a good idea to phone your vet for advice immediately in the event that something has been swallowed.
Your vet will consider whether the object is small enough (and of a suitable shape) to pass through the stomach and intestines, and whether the object has the potential to cause damage. For example, sharp pieces of bone or wooden cocktail sticks are considerably more dangerous than a coin or a marble. Objects that are linear in shape (such as string) are especially dangerous as the intestines can bunch up around the object causing major issues. 

What if my dog swallowed an object and threw up?

If your dog has started to vomit after swallowing an object, it’s best to take him or her to the vet. It may be that the object is stuck and requires removal either by endoscopy or surgery. It’s also possible that the vomiting is unrelated to the object that has been swallowed, but this isn’t a call that can be made remotely! Your vet will need to take a full clinical history and examine your pet in-person in order to provide advice. 

Conclusion

If you’ve stuck with me, by now you will have a good awareness of the signs and action steps to take in response to something getting stuck in your dog’s throat, as well as the preventative measures that can be taken to minimize the chances of choking occurring.  

While choking incidents are thankfully usually mild, they can have severe or even life-threatening consequences. If your dog appears to have something stuck in their throat, the key takeaway is that you should always seek veterinary attention without delay. Better that you arrive with a dog who has already stopped choking, than delay potentially life saving intervention. 

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