First Aid—Blocked Airway

Yes, a true choking situation occurs only very rarely, and it is without exception a manifestation of horrible bad luck. Read this through and see what you can remember… just in case.

If your pet has something obstructing her airway, she will be frantic. Do NOT reach in there. You know why. You will not be able to help her at all if your dominant hand is all chewed to pieces by a panicky dog. Stay away from her mouth. If you don’t think you have time to reach the vet, you may attempt the Heimlich Maneuver on her instead. Do it just as you would to a human, upright, or attempt it as she is standing in her natural pose. Either way, it is not elegant (or especially reliable) when performed on a dog, which is why Dr. Heimlich, a biped, invented it for others of his kind. A modified version involves leaning over her and clasping your hands together beneath her chest as she stands on all four feet. Now you can replicate the thrusts of the Heimlich Maneuver by squeezing forcefully and repeatedly from side to side. Note that CPR compressions on a dog or cat are also properly administered from side to side, because of the shape of their chest.

In the unique situation where a large object has become lodged at the back of your pet’s mouth (you might even see it… do NOT reach in there…), you may be able to pop it out. This can be a large ball or other hard rubber toy that got stuck in the soft spot between the jawbone and the voicebox. If you can feel it from the outside of the neck, you might be able to milk it forward and force it past the jawbone, thus popping it out of the mouth without actually attempting to grab it.

If you can’t make any headway and your pet passes out, it is not time to give up. It is time to stick your hand in there. Open your pet’s mouth wide and use a dry washcloth to pull out and down on her tongue. If you reach in, try your best not to push the object any deeper; depending on its consistency, you might be able to grasp a piece of it or hook a finger behind it. If your pet is small enough to suspend upside-down by her waist, gravity might help to dislodge the obstruction. If she’s a bigger breed, try rolling her onto an inclined surface (with the head pointing down) and attempting that modified Heimlich again.

Airway obstruction is rare, but it does occur, and its course tends toward tragedy. I hope that, if it ever happens in your home, you’ll remember some of these tips and maybe win the lottery. If your pet doesn’t survive, at least you’ll know you did the best you could with a bad situation. It’s okay (and I’d recommend this) to visit the vet after such a traumatic event to see if he can shed a little light and help you understand what happened.

Dr. M.S. Regan