The statistics are daunting – over 200,000 cases of pet choking are reported by veterinarians every year. That number does not include unreported choking events that occur at home and recover (or die). June 22 has been declared National Pet Choking Prevention Day. The day has been set aside to bring awareness to the dangers of pet choking. This is a devasting way to lose a pet, and most of the time, it is preventable.
Pet choking comes in many different forms. The most common form is an obstruction in the pet’s airway. An object can be wedged in the larynx or mouth resulting in a partial or total obstruction of the airway. Other objects may have passed the windpipe, only to be wedged in the esophagus. Dogs and cats choke from items (like collars, cords and strings) around their necks. In their struggle to free themselves, they can pull these items even tighter and cut off their airway.
There may be complications after a choking incident. A secondary phenomenon due to the pressure changes in the thoracic cavity during and after a choking incident can result in non-Cardiogenic pulmonary edema. Fluid will build outside the alveoli (sacs where air is exchanged in the lungs) resulting in a compromised exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The integrity of the vascular membrane in the lungs is disrupted due to leaking vessels and fluid shifts because of the pressure changes. Conventional therapy for this problem relies on oxygen support. In addition to oxygen, integrative medicine uses alternative therapies such as Chinese herbs to provide support and promote healing.
What are the risk factors for pet choking?
Choking is a risk for any dog or cat. It is important to safeguard your home and supervise your pets when eating their food or treats, as well as playing with toys. The danger increases when there are multiple dogs in a home, especially if there is competition for toys or treats. Dogs of different sizes can also pose a risk. A combination of cats and dogs in the home can also present a potential for choking. Cats may not chew on things that your dog might, but they can knock items to the floor while playing. The item might just be interesting enough for your dog to chew and attempt to eat. Animals with preexisting conditions such as heart disease or laryngeal paralysis are at higher risk for choking.
What are common choking hazards?
- Balls - If you are playing ball with your dog, always throw the ball away from him not toward him. Always use a ball that is too big to get stuck in your dog’s airway or mouth. Use balls with a textured surface versus a smooth surface as these are easier to remove from a mouth or airway. Balls with holes will not completely block an airway, giving precious minutes to get to an emergency clinic. Golf balls are a major choking hazard.
- Food - Food in large pieces for small dogs is trouble. Small dogs and any Brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds need to have treats and food cut up in small pieces.
- Rawhide in any shape and size - Most rawhide is bleached or soaked in chemicals and is not healthy for pets to be consuming. Rawhide fresh out of the package is hard, but once chewed, it becomes very soft and flexible, and animals will want to swallow them in whole or in large pieces. They are difficult to extract from airways because they are slippery and can swell when wet. Even the “rolled” rawhide chews will unwind when chewed, creating a choking hazard.
- Long-term chews – Long-term chews like bully sticks become a choking hazard when a dog chokes on the small end-piece that remains when they finish the treat. Don’t ever give your dog a long-term chew without supervision.
- Pacifiers – Pacifiers can be very appealing to dogs who are attracted to the taste and smell of milk and food from a child.
- Small children’s toys and pieces of toys (i.e., Legos)
- Cloth items including towels, burp cloths, dish towels, potholders, and oven mitts.
- Extension cords and other electric and electronic cords
- Ball of string or yarn – cats love these but the string can so easily be ingested or get tangled around the neck.
- Cat “teaser” toys with long strings, and other small cat toys that can get stuck in a dog’s airway.
- Rubber bands and hair ties
- Corks such as those from wine bottles
- Window blinds and curtains with cords
- Collars – Never put your dog in a crate while wearing a collar. If leaving your pets alone in the house, remove the collars, especially those with hanging tags. Cats are more likely than dogs to choke on collars. The choking risk comes from a cat’s accessibility to surfaces and places where collars and collar tags can get caught. Pulling on leashes that are attached to a collar can damage structures in the neck and larynx, including compression of the vagus nerve, carotid arteries, and cervical spine.
- Improper harnessing - Dogs not harnessed properly in the back of trucks is a big problem. A dog can jump off the truck and be dragged along the road or under the vehicle if the owner is unaware that he or she jumped out. Strangulation and other catastrophic injuries can occur.
What are safe chew alternatives for dogs?
Bully sticks are safe when used with a product like the Bow-Wow Buddy. This product will securely hold the end of the bully stick in place while your pet chews. It prevents your pet from accessing and choking on the end piece that is secured in the Bow-Wow buddy. The small end of lamb horns can also be placed in the Bow-Wow Buddy to prevent choking. Collagen dental chews are made from collagen (the layer of tissue underneath an animal’s skin) and will break into small pieces. Dehydrated fish skin will also break into small pieces.
Pet parent…know your dog!
What is your dog’s eating style? Does he or she eat fast and gulp food without much chewing?? What are his or her mannerisms? Do you have an aggressive chewer? What is your dog’s chewing style? OBSERVE. What is your dog’s physicality? Are they a short-nosed breed? Small dog or large dog? Does he or she have any underlying conditions? SUPERVISE – especially when giving your pet a new treat or toy. Get your dog used to having your fingers in his or her mouth. Brushing teeth is a good way to help your pet get comfortable with opening his or her mouth when needed.
There are steps you can take to make sure your pet is not a statistic. Observe your pet’s eating and chewing style. Supervise when trying out new chew treats and toys. Perform a scan of your home regularly to identify and secure potential choking hazards. Choking is a critical situation. There is a large emotional and financial toll for pet owners who have experienced a choking incident with a pet. Share this information with family and friends who are pet owners. Together, we can reduce and even eliminate choking incidents in our pets. For more information, visit nationalpetchokingpreventionday.com.