How to Clear an Airway and Perform the Heimlich Maneuver on a Dog, Cat or Another Pet

Learn About the Heimlich Maneuver and First Aid for a Choking Dog or Cat -- It May Save Your Pet's Life!
Learn About the Heimlich Maneuver and First Aid for a Choking Dog or Cat -- It May Save Your Pet's Life!

When your cat, dog or another pet is choking, it’s vital that you know how to administer first aid. In the event of an emergency, you will have a matter of seconds to clear the pet’s airway using one of three methods. There won’t be time to “Google it” or call the veterinary clinic for help; you will need to act immediately, so it’s vital that you know what to do!

Yesterday, my disabled dog choked while eating. She lost consciousness within about 30 seconds. Fortunately, I knew how to clear a dog’s airway and I knew how to perform CPR on a pet, so we were able to revive her. In short, this knowledge saved my dog’s life.

When a pet is choking, you have 2 to 3 minutes to clear the airway and get air into their lungs. After 2 to 3 minutes, the risk of brain damage increases exponentially, but you should continue resuscitation efforts for as long as possible.

There are three methods that can be used to clear an airway:

  • Hand Removal of the Obstruction;
  • A “Shake Down;” and
  • Heimlich Maneuver.

Before you can perform first aid, you’ll need to recognize that there’s a problem. Symptoms of a choking dog or cat include:

  • Pale, white or blue tongue and gums (Note: the Chow Chow, Shar Pei and several other dog breeds have a blue tongue when they’re healthy! So know your dog’s tongue color in advance!);
  • Pawing at the face or snout;
  • Panicked behavior (e.g., flailing, walking in circles, and other unusual behavior);
  • Unsuccessful attempts to regurgitate or vomit;
  • Loss of consciousness.

When a pet is choking, there will be little or no passage of air.  This makes it impossible to cough. If your pet is coughing, this is a good thing! It means that air can still pass into the lungs.

How to Manually Remove an Obstruction from a Pet’s Airway

When a dog or cat is choking, begin by attempting to remove the obstruction manually. Open the pet’s mouth and look toward the back of the throat. If you have a flashlight handy, use it! If you cannot see well due to poor lighting, use your pointer finger to swipe the back of the pet’s throat.

If you can see the obstruction, attempt to remove it by hand. Use caution, as it will be slippery. Also use caution to avoid pushing the item deeper into the pet’s throat. If you cannot see the blockage, attempt to clear it by using your palm to deliver several hard, swift blows to the center of the pet’s back, right between the shoulder blades. Re-check the pet’s mouth. If the pet is still choking, proceed by performing a “shake down” on the pet.

Performing a “Shake Down” on a Choking Cat, Dog or Another Pet

Puppies and kittens are frequently born with fluid in their airway. This prevents the animal from breathing, so in the moments after birth, you must perform a maneuver known as a “shake down.” (Though notably, it does not actually involve shaking!) This same method can be used on cats and small dogs who are choking.

Use the following method:

  • Firmly grasp the pet’s body. The positioning will vary according to the pet’s size. For the smallest pets, place one hand on the chest, between the front legs, wrapping your fingers on either side of his neck; place your other hand on the back, right over his shoulder blades. The hand positioning is not all that important; it’s only vital that you maintain a firm grasp.
  • Assume a wide stance, with your feet apart.
  • Holding the pet upside down, with the head aimed toward the floor, lift the pet over your head.
  • Swing the pet downward in an arch toward the floor. Stop abruptly when the pet’s head reaches knee-level.
  • Repeat two to three times.
  • Open the pet’s mouth and look for obvious obstructions. If you see the object, attempt to remove it by hand.
  •  Determine if the airway is clear. Hold the pet’s mouth closed and put your other hand on the side of the pet’s chest.  Put your mouth over the pet’s nose and blow. You will feel the pet’s chest rise if the airway is clear. If you’ve cleared the airway and the pet is not breathing on his own, perform CPR. If the airway is still blocked, you’ll feel the resistance as you attempt to blow and the chest will not rise. If the airway is still obstructed, repeat this process once, re-check the airway and if it’s still blocked, then move on to the Heimlich maneuver.

The procedure is a bit different in cases when you cannot lift the pet over your head. In these cases, you must perform a modified “shake down” maneuver.

For large dogs, wrap your arms around the dog’s waist and lift the hind quarters into a “wheelbarrow” position. Lift the legs as high as you can so you can get the dog as close to vertical as possible. Lift as much as you can, and then jerk the dog’s body downward in a single “shake” motion. It’s important to use a jerking motion, as the sudden stop will force the blockage to move downwards and hopefully, out of the pet’s body. Repeat two to three times, then examine the dog to see if the dog is breathing.

If the dog is too large for a “shake down” or a modified “shake down,”  lift the dog’s hind quarters into a wheelbarrow position (get him as vertical as possible), as described above, then use your palm to administer several hard, swift blows to the center of the dog’s back in the area of the shoulder blades.

The “shake down” maneuver is particularly effective if a pet is choking on a liquid. Liquids are rather difficult to expel using the Heimlich maneuver. In fact, when my dog Kota started choking yesterday, she was choking on a liquid. Kota has Trigeminal Neuritis and megaesophagus, so her food must be hand-fed in a milkshake consistency, but yesterday, I made the mixture a bit too thick. Megaesophagus prevents the muscles in her esophagus from working properly, so the muscles do not push the food down and into the stomach (we must keep her upright during and after feedings, so gravity moves the food into her stomach.) Every cat or dog with megaesophagus is at high risk of choking, as the food can back up in the esophagus, and when the esophagus fills up to the point where the trachea (windpipe) branches off,  the animal’s airway is blocked (you can envision it like a backed-up pipe.)

In short, if your pet has megaesophagus, a condition that affects the pet’s ability to swallow properly or another issue that affects the upper portion of the digestive tract, it’s vital that you know how to clear the airway using this method.

Please note that even once you’ve cleared the pet’s airway, your cat or dog may not immediately resume breathing on his own. Therefore, you may need to perform CPR.

How to Perform the Heimlich Maneuver on a Pet

It’s potentially dangerous to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a dog or cat who is able to breathe on his/her own. Therefore, you must first determine if the airway is clear by holding the pet’s mouth closed; place one hand on the pet’s chest.  Cover the pet’s nose with your mouth and blow. The chest will rise if the airway is clear. If the blockage remains, and you’re unable to clear the obstruction by hand, it’s time to proceed to the Heimlich maneuver.

Use the following steps to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a medium or large dog or a large cat:

  1. Hold the pet in an upright position, with the pet’s back against the front of your body. Use a bear hug-type hold for medium and large pets.
  2. Make a fist with one hand and place it at the center of the pet’s abdomen, right below where the ribs end. Place your other hand over the fist.
  3. Using a swift motion, thrust your fist upwards and in toward the core of the pet’s body. Do this three times.
  4. Check the pet’s mouth to see if the object has been dislodged. If it’s not visible, use the aforementioned method to blow into the pet’s nose to determine if the chest will rise.

To perform the Heimlich maneuver on a medium or small cat or a small dog:

  1. Lay the pet  on the floor, positioned on his side.
  2. Kneel beside the pet, facing his back.
  3. Place one hand on the center of the pet’s back, below the shoulder blades.
  4. Make a fist with the other hand and place it at the center of the pet’s abdomen, just below where the ribs end.
  5. Squeezing the pet between your hands, use your fist to push up and in on the abdomen. It must be a swift movement. Repeat three times.
  6. Check the pet’s airway; repeat if necessary.

For extremely small dogs, puppies and kittens, you may only need to use a couple of fingers instead of a fist.

Once you’ve cleared the airway using the Heimlich maneuver and revived the pet using CPR, it’s vital that you transport him to the veterinary clinic for an immediate assessment. The pet may sustain injuries during resuscitation efforts. Broken ribs are very common. Internal injuries can occur as you’re performing the Heimlich maneuver. The obstruction can injure the esophagus. The pet may have inhaled liquid into her lungs, which can lead to aspiration pneumonia.

The “side effects” of a choking incident, first aid and resuscitation efforts can be painful at best and deadly at their worst. So it’s important to have your pet examined.

Read our related article on how to perform CPR in a pet.

Photo Source: Paul Barker on

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Mia Carter is a professional journalist and animal lover. Her furry family members include 6 dogs and 12 cats. She is also a feral cat colony caretaker. Carter specializes in pet training and special needs pet care. All of her animals have special needs such as paralysis, blindness, deafness and FIV, just to name a few. She also serves as a pet foster parent and she actively rehabilitates and rescues local strays and feral kittens.

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