All About Gagging

Some dogs probably eat like perfect gentlemen and ladies, but most of them seem to approach their meals in the fashion of a drowning person struggling for air. It is truly a miracle that we don’t see more dogs in our emergency department with food stuck in their airway. It’s not impossible for kibble and other objects to get in there, but the vast majority of pet owners complaining of “something caught in her throat” are actually describing something else.

Almost every dog that has “something caught in her throat” has caught a respiratory virus in her throat. These things are expelled by other dogs and float along until they land inside a mouth or nose and make for the windpipe. Once there, they start throwing a party. The membranes of the throat get itchy and inflamed. The pet starts to cough and gag vigorously, sometimes retching up a white, foamy liquid. This is still known in some circles as “kennel cough”, although I shall (still) refuse to call it that. Not caught from a kennel. It is caught from other dogs. This distinctive cough often winds up with an arched back and gaping mouth (directed at the floor) for several seconds’ duration, as the pet tries to eject the source of itching and burning. She’ll continue these attempts, more and more frequently, as the germs gleefully prance around in her trachea.

If your dog has an upper respiratory virus, the coughing begins gradually and may be mixed with sneezing or snorting. She will act normal and have a normal head position between coughs. If, however, an object is actually lodged in her throat, she will not be able to act normal or hold her head in a comfortable posture. Her trouble will start very abruptly, perhaps while eating or playing with a toy, and sneezing will not be a feature. While coughing dogs often have trouble sleeping through the night, choking dogs have trouble with each and every breath. Patients with a virus appear annoyed by their predicament, while those with a “stuck object” are engaged in a fight for their lives.

By all means, go to the vet if you think you have an emergency. The vet will gently massage your pet’s airway at the front of the neck. If this brings on a harsh cough, you are probably in good shape. Most upper respiratory infections respond fairly quickly to medicine. If something is actually stuck in there, it will usually produce a lot of breathing noise that may cease when the neck is gently squeezed. This scenario is a lot more worrisome. X-rays might help to clarify the situation, but they are often not easy to obtain. Patients need to lie very still for an x-ray of the neck, requiring a level of calmness that a genuinely choking pet can usually not attain.

You’re surely aware that a true choking event can progress rapidly and end in tragedy. You might not have time to get to the vet. For step-by-step instructions on dislodging an airway obstruction, check our next installment.

Dr. M.S. Regan