5 Common Causes of Choking in Dogs

Published Jun. 17, 2024
A dog holds a frisbee.

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What Is Choking in Dogs?

Choking occurs when a dog is struggling to breathe air into their lungs.

This is caused by either having something blocking their windpipe (trachea) or by having something in the esophagus that is pressing on the windpipe so that it can’t open normally.

While both coughing dogs and choking dogs will seem distressed and forcefully push out air, only choking dogs have trouble inhaling air into the lungs.

When the trachea is blocked, dogs are unable to get air into their lungs. When a dog is truly choking, they will physically struggle to take in air.

Coughing and gagging are often confused with choking, especially the cough that comes with infectious tracheobronchitis (kennel cough).

While both coughing dogs and choking dogs will seem distressed and forcefully push out air, only choking dogs have trouble inhaling air into the lungs.

Fortunately, true choking is very rare in dogs.

Most of the time, dogs are very good at coughing up any food or foreign material that gets lodged in the throat or airway.

Symptoms of Choking in Dogs

Symptoms of choking in dogs include:

5 Common Causes of Choking in Dogs

Let's take a look at some of the most common causes of dog choking.

1. A Foreign Object is Stuck in the Throat

Pups that like to play fetch may accidentally get a ball stuck in the back of their throat if they grab it too forcefully or swallow by mistake. This can also happen with bones.

2. Esophageal Obstruction (Blockage) 

Occasionally, a dog will try to swallow something that is too large and causes pressure on the windpipe. The object, whether it’s a bone or toy, can get stuck in the esophagus and lead to choking.

3. Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome

Brachycephalic dogs have a short skull, which gives them a flat nose appearance. This group includes breeds like English Bulldogs, and the condition can lead to choking.

Sometimes, these dogs can struggle with a condition called brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome (BAOS), where they struggle with getting enough oxygen because of the positions of their nose, palate, throat, and trachea. If they get too hot or worked up, these dogs can choke.

4. Strangulation  

Accidents can happen where a dog gets tangled up and has their airway squeezed.

The most common causes of accidental strangulation and choking are cords from window blinds, ties from a stake in a yard, and collars getting tangled or caught in kennels, fences, or even snagged in another dog’s jaws while playing.

5. Smoke Inhalation 

If a dog is trapped inside during a house fire or outdoors near wildfires, they are at risk of developing serious injury and choking secondary to smoke inhalation.

Smoke from a fire has small particles that irritate the tissue in the windpipe and lungs. This leads to swelling of the airways and potential choking, even after they’ve been rescued from the fire.

How To Help Your Dog if They’re Choking

If you suspect your dog is choking, first check their gum color and make sure it is pink.

If your dog’s gums are pink and they’re able to breathe in normally and are just coughing or gagging when breathing out, it is likely that they are having another issue.

If your dog’s gums have a purple or blue tint, get them to a veterinary hospital immediately.

Infectious respiratory diseases, like kennel cough, can lead to so much coughing that it may look like choking.

If your dog breathes normally when they are not coughing, call your veterinarian to discuss getting your pup seen immediately.

If you have a brachycephalic breed who is struggling to breathe, it’s important that you keep them as calm and cool as possible while you rush them to the vet.

Turn the air conditioner on high while you travel and consider wetting their ears with cold water before loading them in the car.

If your dog’s gums have a purple or blue tint, get them to a veterinary hospital immediately.

If your dog is struggling to breathe, pawing at their face, and seeming distressed, consider a finger sweep if it’s safe to do so.

To do this, open your dog's mouth and rub your finger back and forth in a sweeping motion. Sweep the mouth and back of the tongue with a finger to feel for any bones or toys. Don’t forget to check the roof of the mouth, as this is a common place for a bone to get stuck.

If there is a foreign object in the mouth, see if you can sweep it out. Do not press on the object, because you may lodge it further in the throat.

If your dog has a ball stuck in their throat, it’s better to apply pressure from the outside.

Using your pup’s jaw as leverage, press the ball with your thumbs from behind to pop it forward and out of their mouth.

If your dog is conscious and the object is still stuck, but they can breathe around it, take them to the vet immediately for help removing the object.

If your dog is unconscious, you may need to do the Heimlich maneuver.

Do not do a finger sweep if you are at risk of being bitten by your dog.

Dog Heimlich Maneuver

There are two ways of doing the Heimlich maneuver for different-sized dogs.

The first method is best for small- or medium-sized dogs.

Roll the dog on their back and apply pressure to their belly just below the rib cage, pressing down toward the spine and slightly forward with your thrust.

Thrust a couple of times, then roll them back over and repeat the finger sweep to see if the offending object has come out. Repeat this step if needed.

The second method may be easier for large dogs and is like the technique done in humans.

With your dog in a standing position, wrap your arms around their midsection and grasp your hands together, making a fist.

Pull your hands in toward your body at the base of their abdomen, thrusting up and forward.

Perform the finger sweep and repeat if needed.

When To Bring Your Dog to the Vet

If your dog is choking or has just had a choking episode, have them checked by a veterinarian.

Even if the object was removed, pets can sometimes be left with secondary scrapes, irritation, and trauma to the nearby tissue in the throat.

Your veterinarian will want to do a thorough exam of their mouth and feel their throat and neck.

Prevention of Choking in Dogs

There are a few ways you can help prevent dog choking. These include:

  • Supervise your dog when they are chewing on bones or other chew toys. If they appear to be trying to eat large pieces rather than just chewing on the end, remove the item immediately.

  • Avoid playing with balls small enough to fit into the back of the throat.

  • If you have a brachycephalic breed, prevent exposure to heat or other stress that may increase their breathing rate and make breathing issues worse.

  • Use breakaway or safety collars when your dog is unsupervised, to minimize choking hazards.

  • Keep all cords up high and out of your pup’s reach.

Dog Choking FAQs

Why is my dog gagging like something is stuck in his throat?

Gagging can be a sign of choking, but it is more commonly caused by an infectious respiratory disease like kennel cough or congestive heart disease.

How do you know if your dog has something stuck in his throat?

When a dog has something stuck in their throat, they will often paw at the face, struggle to breathe in, and look very distressed.

What do you do if your dog is making choking noises?

If your dog’s gums have a blue or purple tint, get them to a veterinary hospital as soon as possible.

You can perform a sweep of the mouth with your finger to see if you can feel any objects that are stuck—if it is safe to do so without getting bitten.

If they have something in the throat or mouth but can breathe around it, get them to the nearest vet clinic. If they are unable to breathe and are choking on a foreign object, consider doing the Heimlich maneuver. 

Melissa Boldan, DVM


Melissa Boldan, DVM


Dr. Melissa Boldan graduated from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in 2012. She initially practiced mixed animal...

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