Suffocation in Dogs

Veronica Higgs, DVM
Written by:
Published: December 2, 2022
Suffocation in Dogs

What Is Suffocation in Dogs?

“Suffocation” and “asphyxiation” are terms used interchangeably to describe oxygen deprivation that can result in unconsciousness and death. The air supply may be blocked from entering the body or oxygen may be unable to get to tissues, resulting in lack of oxygen to the brain. Even temporary lack of oxygen to the brain can cause brain damage, loss of consciousness, or death. 

Suffocation in dogs is a medical emergency and it is recommended to take your dog to the local emergency veterinarian immediately if there are any signs of suffocation or loss of consciousness.

Symptoms of Suffocation in Dogs

Clinical signs of suffocation in dogs are typically very acute (severe or intense) and noted by extreme anxiety from the pet. The common signs include:

  • Foaming at the mouth

  • Pawing at the mouth

  • Coughing

  • Blue gums

  • Trouble breathing, gasping for breath

  • Head and neck extended

  • Loss of balance, disorientation

  • Loss of consciousness/coma

Causes of Suffocation in Dogs

Causes of suffocation in dogs are almost always the result of an accident, including:

  • Choking on food (particularly if a dog swallows a large piece of human food)

  • Toys, bones, or other objects becoming lodged in the airway

  • The jaw of one dog becoming lodged under the collar of another dog

  • Entrapment in a confined space, such as in a box without air holes

  • Strangulation, such as accidentally hanging from a leash on a grooming table

  • The head becoming stuck in a dog food, chip, or snack bag or jar

  • Lung trauma (such as in being hit by car)

  • Smoke inhalation, such as in a house fire

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning

  • Drowning, which can occur when a dog falls in a pool with no ladder or obvious exit

What To Do if You Think Your Dog Is Suffocating

The first thing to remember in a suffocation situation is: Do NOT panic. Take a deep breath. Look for and remove any obvious airway obstruction, such as a ball in the dog’s mouth, a collar caught around a dog’s jaw, any bag or object over the head, or anything around the throat. Stay as calm as possible to help keep your dog calm, as heightened anxiety may worsen their ability to breathe.

If the dog is conscious, take them immediately to the local emergency veterinarian and, if possible, call the vet en route to let them know the situation.

If the dog is unconscious and you cannot determine if he is breathing, it is recommended to transport the dog with two people to the emergency veterinarian without delay and to start CPR. Safety is the priority for people and pets, so the driver must maintain calm and focus on driving while the second person (the rescuer) can attend to the pet.

Once in the car, you can start CPR. The rescuer should place the dog on its side, preferably on a flat surface, and perform 30 chest compressions in a row (in the spot where the dog’s elbow hits his chest when fully bent). After the compressions, breathe two breaths into the dog’s nose and repeat. If a third person is available, they may switch out for each cycle but if not, the rescuer should do their best to maintain the compression/breath cycle until arrival at the veterinary hospital. Stop CPR if the dog regains consciousness or is obviously breathing on his own.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Suffocation in Dogs

When you arrive at the emergency veterinarian, pull right up to the entrance. Hopefully you were able to call the vet’s office and they are expecting you and will likely greet you with a gurney at the door. If you know what has caused the suffocation (e.g., toy, food, choked by collar, head stuck in a chip bag), immediately relay this information, since it will be valuable to the veterinarian to assess next steps.

The veterinarian will start with a quick but thorough physical examination to evaluate for the presence of a heartbeat, an obvious airway obstruction, and to determine if the dog is breathing on his own. If necessary, your veterinarian will start or resume CPR.

Once your pet is stable, additional diagnostics will be performed to determine what damage has been done by a lack of oxygen or the initial cause of suffocation. A complete blood count, serum blood chemistry, and urinalysis will all likely be recommended for a baseline evaluation. An x-ray will likely be taken to assess for signs of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema), pneumonia, aspiration pneumonia, bruising on the lungs, or other internal damage.

Treatment of Suffocation in Dogs

Treatment of suffocation will depend on the underlying cause and severity. Once the dog is stabilized, the primary concerns are typically brain damage (due to oxygen deprivation) and lung damage. Often pets will need to be hospitalized for oxygen therapy and IV fluids. Depending on the severity of your pet’s condition, medications may also be used to help with swelling of the brain. Antibiotics for pneumonia and supportive medications, including for pain, nausea, and diarrhea, may also be administered.

In severe cases of suffocation, to help the brain and lungs rest and heal, dogs may need to be placed on a ventilator.

Recovery and Management of Suffocation in Dogs

Sadly, pet parents sometimes come home to discover that a pet has died, as suffocation often occurs accidentally and unwitnessed when no one is there to intercede.

Mild cases of suffocation may be treated on an outpatient basis, using supportive care. In these cases, dogs often make a full recovery and go on to live a normal life. 

However, brain damage can occur if the brain is deprived of oxygen. The lack of oxygen, for as little as 5 minutes, can cause permanent damage to the brain or lungs. If the pet requires CPR, there is a less than 6% chance of survival.

Prevention of Suffocation in Dogs

Due to the deadly nature of suffocation, prevention is essential. Be sure to monitor your dog carefully when playing with other dogs (with or without collars) and around open sources of water, such as a swimming pool; always use trusted groomers and veterinary professionals; and be sure to keep bags and jars in a safe and secure place away from pets, especially when you are not home.

Preparedness for emergencies is also crucial. Familiarize yourself with veterinary CPR. Be sure to identify the location and phone number of your local emergency veterinary hospital and store it in an easy-to-find place. If possible, register with them ahead of time so that if you ever have an emergency, they will have your pet’s information on file. Talk to your veterinarian about pet safety concerns and plan for how to react in emergencies—this may save your dog’s life!

Suffocation in Dogs FAQs

How much does CPR on a dog cost?

It is not uncommon in these situations for the veterinary staff to ask you, and want an immediate answer, whether or not you want them to perform CPR on your pet if needed. In most cases the answer will be yes, but if your pet is elderly or has other concurrent issues, you may wish to list them as a Do Not Resuscitate, or DNR. Discussing CPR status for your pet before a crisis is a good idea to help you make quick decisions in the moment if there ever is a life-or-death emergency such as suffocation. It is important to note that there is often a significant cost to CPR, ranging from $500-$1,500.

Can dogs breathe under a blanket?  

Typically, yes. Blankets are generally aerated enough that suffocation is not a concern, even if a pet likes to sleep under the covers. However, be sure your pet does not get too hot under a blanket and do not allow them to become entangled.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Kateryna Kukota


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