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How To Save a Cat from Choking: Can I Do the Heimlich Maneuver?

Thanks to their pickiness, cats rarely choke. True choking occurs when something is stuck at the very back of a cat’s throat, which leads to the windpipe being obstructed. Often, this occurs when the animal doesn’t chew thoroughly or eats something they shouldn’t. Luckily, cats are quite good at chewing and rarely eat something inedible.

However, that doesn’t mean that choking can’t occur, and it may occur in cats. Usually, there isn’t time to rush the cat to the vet but luckily, there are ways to help a choking cat at home that is a bit like the Heimlich Maneuver. However, it works a bit differently than in people.

With that said, many things can look like choking without actually being choking. It’s important to distinguish between true choking and “fake” choking. You don’t want to treat a cat incorrectly, after all.

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Determine if the Cat Is Choking

Figuring out if your cat is choking or not can be challenging. Choking can look like several other conditions. However, these conditions often need to be treated differently than choking, so it’s vital that you can distinguish between them (and quickly).

Choking usually includes the inability to breathe, gagging, drooling, pawing at the mouth, and coughing. Cats will not make noise if their airway is completely blocked. If no air can get in or out, then their larynx won’t be able to pass air through it, either.

Cats coughing up fur balls (or just about anything else) may look like they are choking. However, they will often be using their whole body to breathe, and some amount of air will be moving. They may move their head back and forth and make whistling noises. This isn’t choking and doesn’t usually require human intervention. (However, if it happens a lot, you may want to see your vet.)

Extravagated breathing for any reason can look like choking. However, some air is usually moving, and other symptoms of choking won’t be present (such as pawing at the mouth). Your cat may make squeaking or whistling noises. In true choking, cats often don’t make any noise.

You should consider what your cat was doing right before the episode occurred. If the cat was sleeping or quietly walking around, they likely aren’t choking. If the cat was playing with a toy that cannot be found, they might be choking. Consider if they had access to anything that may be stuck.

If you still have no idea, you can check the color of your cat’s gums. Pink gums indicate that your cat is getting enough oxygen. However, purple or blue gums indicate that your cat isn’t getting enough air. This is usually a clear sign of choking.

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Image Credit: Ihtar, Pixabay

Removing the Obstruction

As soon as you’ve noticed that the cat is choking, you should act right away. While you should seek vet care after the incident, there is usually not enough time to get vet care right away. Choking is life-threatening and needs to be treated within a few minutes.

*If you’re sure your cat is choking, start here*

First, secure the cat in a towel or another material. Leave the head exposed. This allows you to help the cat without getting clawed. Get a helper to hold the cat in the towel if possible.

Next, look in the cat’s mouth and angle the cat’s head slightly back to see down the throat. Hold the upper part of the cat’s muzzle with one hand, and use the other to open the lower jaw. If you can see the object, attempt to remove it (having a helper is extremely helpful here).

If you cannot see the blockage or remove it easily, do not attempt to and skip to the next step. Do not risk pushing the blockage further if you can not grip it easily.

If that doesn’t work, use squeezing compressions to help expel the blockage. First, use the palm of your hand to thump your cat between the shoulder blades firmly. Try it a few times. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to use squeezing compressions.

To do so, sit the cat on the floor facing away from you. Lift the cat’s hind legs and place them between your knees. Place one hand on either side of the cat’s chest and squeeze to compress the cat’s chest by about a third. Do not apply so much pressure that you cause injuries and break the cat’s ribs. Use jerking movements to dispel as much air as possible quickly.

If your cat coughs, it is working. Squeeze up to five times. If it doesn’t work by the fifth time, it likely isn’t going to work.

Treating an Unconscious Cat

If for one reason or another, the cat goes unconscious, treatment needs to be different. In choking situations, this is the result of too little oxygen. While unconscious cats need to be treated right away, they are a bit easier to treat (as they won’t be fighting you).

First, open the cat’s mouth as wide as possible. Look for the obstruction. If you can see it easily, remove it if possible. Do not put any pressure on the object, as you do not want to push it further into the airway.

Second, wipe away any fluid and tilt your cat’s head down. You don’t want the fluid to move down into the lungs. You want it to come out of the cat’s mouth.

Next, begin rescue breaths if the airway is clear. To do this, place your mouth over your cat’s closed mouth and nose and breathe forcefully.

Sick cat medicines
Image Credit: one photo, Shutterstock

Seek Veterinary Care

Cats have a very sensitive larynx. During a choking episode, the larynx is likely to be damaged or irritated. This may cause it to spasm, which can asphyxiate a cat. Therefore, you must seek veterinary attention after a choking episode, even if the cat seems fine. The vet can assess the damage done to the larynx and even provide medication to prevent this from happening.

If possible, have a helper call the vet while you’re working on the cat so that they can prepare for your arrival.

Your cat may also be oxygen-deprived and need supplemental oxygen to prevent organ damage. Your vet can determine if this is the case and apply supplemental oxygen appropriately.

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While choking in cats is very rare, it isn’t impossible. This condition is life-threatening and can cause brain damage after only a few minutes. Therefore, it needs to be treated right away at home. There are several ways to do this.

The most straightforward way is to remove the obstruction—but you don’t want to apply too much pressure to the object, as this can make it slide further into the airway. If removing the obstruction isn’t possible, there are two ways to apply pressure to help expel it.

One is to thump the cat’s back between the shoulder blades forcefully. The other is to squeeze the cat’s ribs to encourage coughing. Both can help expel the obstruction.

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Featured Image Credit: Ada K, Pixabay