Choking in cats
Choking is caused by a foreign object (such as a bit of toy, bone or a hairball) getting stuck in the throat, or by objects getting wrapped tightly around the neck. Symptoms include extreme distress, pawing at the mouth or rubbing the their face upon the ground, continuous gagging/retching and increased salivation. If the object is obstructing efforts to breathe, you may also see coughing, breathing difficulties, blue mucous membranes (cyanosis) and collapse.
(Intermittent coughing with periods of being fine in the middle is not a typical sign of choking – animals with objects stuck in their throats become very agitated and will make continuous efforts to move the object.)
What do I do at home?
Time is of the utmost importance if there is a breathing obstruction. While first aid can be tried at home, it should not delay the journey to the vets and should not be continued for more than a minute or two at most as this can be the difference between life and death.
Firstly, restrain your cat. Choking cats of all ages will struggle, potentially causing harm to themselves and to you as they will thrash around and bite in their panic. If the object is a cable, string or other item wrapped around the neck, carefully use a pair of scissors to cut the object.
Open the mouth and look inside. An object in the mouth such as a stick or piece of bone may be able to be retrieved with a large pair of tweezers, or broken in half to release the pressure. If a solid object is lodged at the back of the throat (e.g. rawhide), do not push at the object with your fingers as you may lodge it deeper. Do not stick fingers down the throat if no object can be seen, as this may cause damage to the delicate tissues at the back of the throat
If this hasn’t worked, you need to be in the car heading to the vet ASAP. While in the car, if the cat cannot breathe, you can try a variation of the Heimlich manoeuvre. Do not try this unless your cat is collapsed and actively cannot breathe as it can cause damage to the chest, and your cat will need to be checked afterwards by a vet. (In human medicine, anyone receiving the Heimlich manoeuvre should be checked by a doctor to make sure that no ribs have been broken.) If a second person is not available during the car journey, it is more important to be driving quickly and safely to the vet.
- Hold his/her back against your stomach (head up, paws down), and find the soft hollow under the ribs. Your closed fist should fit into this spot. Pull up and in two or three times, toward your own tummy, using a thrusting motion.
In most cases, getting rid of the choking obstruction allows the cat to begin breathing again on his own. If not, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation at approximately 120 chest compressions per minute and continue these until at the veterinary practice. Whether the item is dislodged or not, a trip to the vet is necessary as there may be damage to the inside of the mouth or throat once the object is removed.
What can the vet do?
The vet will confirm that your cat is choking, rather than coughing or experiencing a different respiratory condition. They may sedate your cat to reduce their distress and to make it easier to examine the mouth and throat as well as remove any object.
In a complete obstruction, the vet may perform an emergency tracheotomy – a quick procedure that allows them to pass a breathing tube from the neck straight into the trachea (windpipe), bypassing the obstruction and allowing your pet to breathe until the obstruction is removed. In the worst case scenario, the vet may be able to resuscitate a cat that has stopped breathing.
What happens afterwards?
It’s a good idea to have your cat checked out by the vet, even if you manage to get rid of the choking hazard. Some cats bite their own tongue or the inside of the mouth, while the foreign object could have left abrasions. Cats which have received the Heimlich manoeuvre must be checked for chest trauma.
Trauma to the inside of the mouth or throat can take many days to heal, and can also make it hard or painful for the cat to eat his regular food. Making the normal diet soft by running it through the blender with warm water may help. Your vet may dispense pain relief to help during the recovery period.
This advice is not a substitute for a proper consultation with a vet and is only intended as a guide. Please contact your local veterinary practice for advice or treatment immediately if you are worried about your pet’s health - even if they are closed, they will always have an out of hours service available. Find out more about what to do in an out of hours emergency.