Choking is a common reason why pets are brought to the veterinarian, though the signs of choking are often mistaken. Usually, the owner confuses coughing or vomiting with choking. Understanding the causes and signs of choking can help determine proper care and treatment for your pet.
Choking can occur due to an obstruction of the airway from a foreign object in the throat, severe swelling of the throat or due to constriction of the neck. True choking is an emergency and immediate veterinary assistance is crucial.
Oral Foreign Object
Having “something stuck in the throat” is a common problem in pets. Due to their curious nature and indiscriminate eating habits, dogs and cats can get all kinds of items stuck in their mouth. Large pieces of food, bone, balls, toys, wood, cloth, metal and even fish hooks have been removed from the mouths of dogs and cats. In order for the foreign object to cause choking, the object must obstruct the opening to the airway. Just having an object stuck in the mouth does not always result in the emergency condition associated with choking.
One common oral foreign body that does not result in choking is associated with bone ingestion. Bones can get stuck between teeth, around the lower jaw or even stuck on the roof of the mouth. This results in significant distress for the pet but not choking.
Other Causes of Canine Choking
Severe throat swelling can occur and is usually associated with an allergic reaction or response to trauma. The tissues within the throat can swell so much that the opening to the airway is blocked.
Constricting neck injury is usually associated with collars and ropes. Dogs and cats that get collars tangled can choke due to the constriction of the neck from the tightness of the collar. In severe cases, dogs and cats can hang from collars, leashes and ropes. For example, a dog may be tied to a leash with just enough slack to jump the fence but not enough slack to allow the dog to touch the ground on the other side. A more common example is the exuberant puppy that constantly pulls on the choke chain while on a walk. This can result in choking.
A complication associated with choking is pulmonary edema. This is the accumulation of fluid within the lungs associated with neck injury. The exact reason this occurs is not completely understood. When the neck is constricted or the airway is blocked, it is though that nerve stimulation in the neck results in fluid accumulation in the lungs. This can lead to significant breathing problems.
What to Watch For
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty breathing
- Pawing at face
- Anxiety and distress
Veterinary Care of Choking in Dogs
Diagnosing choking is based on history and physical examination. For oral foreign bodies, a thorough oral exam reveals the cause of the obstruction. In severely distressed animals, sedation may be required to examine the inside of the mouth.
Chest x-rays may be necessary if breathing difficulty is noted. X-rays are taken to look for signs of pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs).
A thorough physical exam is necessary to determine if there are any other injuries.
For oral foreign bodies, the foreign object needs to be removed immediately. After removal, the mouth needs to be examined again, looking for wounds that could have been caused by the object.
Oral antibiotics may be prescribed if oral wounds are noted.
For neck injuries, the collar and any constricting item needs to be immediately removed. Based on chest x-rays and physical examination, hospitalization may be recommended.
Cats/dogs with breathing difficulty may need oxygen supplementation. Animals with pulmonary edema may require diuretic medication such as furosemide to try to reduce the fluid in the lungs.
In severe cases that do not quickly respond to treatment, an emergency tracheostomy may be required. This is a temporary measure that allows the pet to breath until the cause of the choking can be resolved. A temporary tracheostomy is performed by making a small incision in the neck. The trachea (windpipe) is then cut to allow a breathing tube to be placed directly into the trachea.
In select cases, some patients may require assisted breathing with a ventilator.
If you notice your pet is choking, remove any item that may be constricting the neck. Examine inside the mouth and remove any foreign object you see. Do not blindly place your hand down your pet’s throat and pull any object you feel. Dogs and cats have small bones that support the base of their tongues. Owners probing the throat for a foreign object have mistaken these for chicken bones. Do not attempt to remove an object unless you can see and identify it.