How To Perform the Heimlich Maneuver When Your Pet is Choking
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
A choking pet is the kind of adrenaline-inducing rush no one wants: your whole body gets shaky, time is somehow slipping through your fingers, but you’re also moving in slow-motion, and basic, effective communication somehow feels just beyond your grasp. Reminding you to “not panic” in the situation when you need to perform the Heimlich maneuver on your dog or cat is futile: when you love your pet, and you see them in distress, your body is going to fire off every emergency signal it can to boot you into action.
However, there’s something to be said for muscle memory and pre-planning. We’ve written up some step-by-step pointers and included an instructional video for how to prepare and respond to a choking pet so that if or when it happens, you’ll at least have a few extra tricks up your sleeve.
More of a visual learner? We had RDBK’s Vet Nutrition Advisor Dr. Jules walk us step-by-step through the three main methods of performing the Heimlich maneuver on choking pets. This isn’t a video you want to put off watching until you need it—learning these techniques today could save your pet’s life!
Step One: Recognize When Your Pet Is Choking
The first thing to understand is that any pet can choke: it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, a strong-jawed breed or a dainty nibbler. Dogs, in particular, have an innate inclination to try and swallow things they either simply shouldn’t or can’t even physically fit down their gullet! On the other hand, cats are generally not as fond of chewing and less likely to try and swallow something too large for them—but it can still happen, so stay attentive if it looks like they’re struggling with more than just a hairball.
Remember that coughing, wheezing, or hacking sounds are not necessarily a signal for choking. Choking can be a “silent but deadly” situation—the less you hear, the more urgent the problem may be. A choking pet will look distressed: they’ll probably have their mouth open and be trying to cough—either with sound or just silent heaving—and they might be pawing at their face.
If you’ve walked in on your pet choking and you’re not sure how long it’s been going on, there’s no reason to delay in rendering aid—but you can get an idea by the colour of their gums. Still pink and healthy-looking? It probably just started, so proceed to step two. Gums are pale, white-ish or blue? They’re losing oxygen—make a cursory stop at step two if you can, but proceed quickly to step three if you can’t.
Signs of Choking in Dogs & Cats:
Pale or blue gums
Frantic pawing at their face, panicked expression
Desperately rubbing face against the ground
Choking, gagging, or hacking, often with minimal sounds
Panting or troubled, erratic breathing
Silent heaving with an open mouth
Body stiffening, possibly falling onto their side or passing out
These are ALL signs of a potentially choking pet that requires IMMEDIATE attention!
Step Two: The Scoop Technique
It’s possible that whatever is obstructing their airway is just jammed in the back of their throat—it could be an easy fix IF they’ll allow you to get your hands in their mouth. Even the most well-behaved pets might refuse to open up their mouth or try to bite when they’re panicking, which, let’s be honest, is understandable. If your pet won’t open their mouth, or you have a particularly bitey dog, don’t waste time forcing it open—just move on to step three.
If your dog or cat will let you open their mouth and put your hands in there, this is a worthwhile step to try. Start by looking down their throat as far as possible—you can gently pull on their tongue if that gives you a better vantage (pro tip: use a paper towel or piece of cloth to handle the tongue, it will be slippery). If you can see the obstruction, make a hook with your finger and attempt to scoop it out. Be careful to not push it in deeper!
If this technique doesn’t work after the first attempt, move on to step three.
Look down their throat and see if you can spot the obstruction.
Make a hook with your finger and make a scooping motion.
Can’t open their mouth or dog trying to bite? Don’t force it, move on immediately.
Step Three: The Heimlich Maneuver for Dogs and Cats
METHOD 1: SMALL DOGS OR CATS
If you’re here at step three, then you know for sure your pet is choking and needs immediate assistance. There are three ways to perform the Heimlich maneuver—aka abdominal thrusts—on your pet, and they depend on the size and shape of your pet and the state they’re in.
We’ll begin with the basics of the technique: start by arranging yourself behind your pet and find their waist—that’ll be the “tuck” right behind their ribcage, at the start of their stomach. Make a fist and place it at the tuck, and put your other hand over your fist. The motion you’ll be making is UP and IN towards your pet’s head. Keep this movement quick and avoid using prolonged pressure. You’re not trying to squeeze out the obstruction like a tube of toothpaste, you’re trying to create short blasts of pressure by using the air that’s already inside of them to “pop” out whatever they’re choking on.
The first variant of this maneuver is best used on small dogs or cats: keep them standing on all fours facing away from you and perform the up and in motion. Remember to use force proportional to their size; if your pet is particularly petite, use your fingertips instead of a fist for more direct pressure.
Pet faces away from you.
Use a fist OR fingertips at the start of their waist—before their hips, after their ribcage.
The motion is UP and IN towards their head.
Use short, quick motions.
METHOD 2: MEDIUM TO LARGE DOGS
The second method is for medium to large dogs: due to their size, it can be awkward reaching around with them on all fours and still getting the right angle and pressure in your thrusts. For larger dogs, we recommend getting them to stand on their hind legs—still with their back to you—and repeat that same motion, although from this angle, it’ll feel more like an IN and UP gesture. If you’ve ever learned the traditional Heimlich maneuver, this motion may seem familiar to you—it’s the same “J” stroke motion used on choking humans. If there is someone with you during this, they can help by holding your dog upright; if no one is around and you can’t hold them up while performing the correct strokes, try propping their front legs up on a table, if possible. Remember, working quickly and efficiently is more important than taking time to arrange 100% ideal circumstances—there are no points for style here.
Pup standing on their hind legs with their back to you is an easier position for larger breeds.
Put their front paws on a table or have someone with you hold them upright.
DO NOT spend too much time arranging them into the “right” position.
If upright, the motion will be similar to the traditional Heimlich—IN (towards you) and UP (towards their head).
METHOD 3: ADVANCED CHOKING
The third way of performing the Heimlich is for when things get even more serious: if your dog or cat has lost enough oxygen that they are struggling to stay upright or conscious at all, have them lie on their side. Find the widest part of the side of their rib cage, and do one short, quick thrust there. Check their mouth; if nothing has come up, repeat applying pressure and check again.
Lay down the exhausted or unconscious pet on their side.
Perform short, firm thrusts on the widest part of their ribcage (similar motion and position to performing CPR).
Check mouth/throat after each thrust, remove the item if possible.
Repeat only up to 5 times.
Step Three, Part Two: What if It’s Not Working?
We’re not going to pull our punches here: as you can imagine, time is critical in these situations. If you don’t get results after approximately five firm abdominal thrusts, scoop up your baby and get to help ASAP. Ideally, get to your vet if they’re close enough, but maybe your neighbour has a dog, in which case we’d say this is an acceptable time to go pounding on doors and shouting for help. If you’re making the dash to the vet and you have someone with you, bring them along. Whoever is calmest at the time is the one who drives—the other person will be in the back with your pet and continuing abdominal thrusts. If possible, have someone call ahead and let the vet know you are on your way with a choking dog—you want all hands on deck and ready to go with treatment as soon as you arrive!
Get help by the fifth Heimlich thrust with no result.
Seek out neighbours if possible, otherwise, get to a vet ASAP.
Call the vet ahead of time if possible!
Step Four: Follow Up Care
Unlike in movies, you probably won’t see the obstruction arc dramatically across the room once it’s dislodged. In fact, most dogs and cats will instinctively keep their mouths closed, so you might have to pry open their jaws and manually remove the offending item once it’s free. You will, however, likely feel your pet relax, make sounds again, and take a few big breaths to signal that you’ve successfully saved them.
But the saga doesn’t end here: after a severe choking event like this, it’s best to get your pet to a vet sooner rather than later. There may be something still stuck in their throat, especially if they were choking on something that can splinter, like a stick or a cooked bone. Even if they coughed it all out, they still could have cuts and other damage done to their throat, which could begin to swell from the insulted tissue. Your vet will have better tools and skills to ensure they have a smooth recovery.
Just because they are breathing now doesn’t mean the situation is over.
Visiting a vet can ensure there is no lasting damage, and that no further treatment is needed.
Prevention and Preparedness
As mentioned above, any pet can choke from just about anything. While we’re big advocates for fresh foods here at Red Dog Blue Kat, we acknowledge that bones—even uncooked—come with some hazards. Check out our Intro to Feeding Bones blog and our bone feeding guide to make sure you’re giving your pet bones that are appropriate to their size and chewing type.
Keep your pet under close supervision whenever they’re going to town on any kind of chew (bone, bully stick, or even a chew toy). Chunks can break off of even the most trustworthy chews, and dogs especially are not overly discerning about what they’ll try and swallow. As you’ve probably learned from this article so far, a choking pet requires an immediate response, so it’s best if you’re there with them and ready to jump into action as soon as you can.
Of course, we hope you and your pet never experience this kind of heart-pounding action, but take pride in your foresight and willingness to prepare and learn! If you have any questions or concerns about feeding bones to your dog or cat, you can email us or message us on Instagram at @reddogbluekat.