The Heimlich maneuver, performed to save someone from choking, is a familiar operation. You may not have seen it done in person, but it’s often written into television or movie storylines, whether as a gag or something more serious. Or you might have learned how to do it yourself on a medical dummy in a health class. And while it’s less common these days, restaurants and other public forums still occasionally hang posters depicting the steps.
What most people don’t know is that the Heimlich isn’t reserved for people. You can also perform it on dogs in extreme emergency situations.
To that end, a lot of dog owners don’t even realize that, like a human, a dog can choke on their food, treat, toy, or another object. Sometimes a foreign object is wound around a dog’s throat, which can cause them to suffocate. Any form of choking is serious and needs assessment and action. It can result in injury or death.
Signs of Dog Choking
How can you tell if a dog is choking? Sometimes it’s more obvious than others. If your dog’s collar has gotten caught in the Venetian blinds, for example, release them immediately or cut away the object binding them. If the dog is awake and aware but still in distress, head to the vet at once. The windpipe could have gotten damaged, the dog could have bitten their tongue or have abrasions, or have some other injuries from trying to free itself. If your dog is unconscious, call the vet and begin CPR.
If an object is in your dog’s windpipe, they might make choking sounds or paw at their muzzle and drool. They might rub their face on the floor, cough, and gag.
However, dogs often cough and retch due to tracheitis or heart disease. If you come upon your dog coughing and don’t know if it’s because of illness or choking, check the skin and mucous membranes. If they’re blue, your dog likely has something lodged in their airway.
Don’t panic. If your dog is awake and aware, they’re likely panicking and might bite or hurt you if thrashing around. Here’s what to do:
- Restrain the dog—do not muzzle them.
- Carefully pry open the jaws, using both hands (one on the upper and one on the lower mandible), and fold the dog’s lips over their teeth so that there’s a layer between them and your fingers.
- Peer inside, using a small flashlight (like the one on your phone) if one is readily available. Do a mouth sweep—with your index finger, hook or pull out small objects that are easily removed, such as bones or sticks.
- If you see a small object that is impossible to remove with a mouth sweep, such as food or rawhide, take or break it apart with large tweezers or small tongs. Do not push at it, as it could become more firmly lodged in the throat.
- If you see a large object, such as a ball or toy, press your thumbs underneath both sides of the dog’s jaw near the base of the throat and press upwards. This might dislodge it.
- Don’t forget to check the roof of the mouth, as often sticks or bones can become lodged across that area
- If you don’t see an object, do not insert anything down your dog’s throat, (including your hand), as that could hurt your dog.
- If none of these options work and your dog is still in distress or unconscious, take your pet to the vet ASAP!
- Only move on to the Heimlich maneuver if you can’t get to the vet in time and your pet appears to be gasping for last breaths.
Heimlich Maneuver for Small Canines
There are two methods:
- Pick up the dog and hold them with their back to your front. Find the soft spot on their abdomen under their ribs. Using the thumb side of your fist, gently thrust inwards and upwards.
- Lay the dog on their back. Find the soft spot on the abdomen under the ribs. Using the heel of your hand, gently press inwards and upwards.
Heimlich Maneuver for Large Canines
Note: Only attempt the Heimlich maneuver if you do not have enough time to make it to the vet. Ideally, have a vet on the phone to help walk you through.
There are two methods:
- Stand the dog on their hind legs and hold them like a person with their back to your front. Find the soft spot on the abdomen under the ribs. Using your fist, thrust inwards and upwards.
- Lay the dog on their side. Find the soft spot on their abdomen under the ribs. Supporting them from the back, press a fist upwards and inwards towards their spine.
After the Heimlich
For any size or breed of dog, after using the Heimlich, place your dog on their side. Do a mouth sweep (see instructions and precautions above) to remove dislodged objects.
If your dog is not breathing, perform CPR.
Take any dog that has experienced a Heimlich maneuver or any form of choking to the vet for assessment, especially for chest and throat injuries.
Some dogs are more prone to choking than others. Those who wolf down their food without chewing it—especially rescue dogs—might choke on their meals or treats. Dogs who have obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders and chew their toys and balls into pieces could easily swallow them. Lastly, dogs who retrieve and gnaw on rubber balls over and over often inadvertently wedge them in their throats.
A choking dog is far more common than owners believe. Knowing basic signs and techniques will save canine lives.