What to Do if Your Cat is Choking

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When a pet emergency occurs, it's important to know what to do in the moment of distress. From performing the cat Heimlich maneuver to preventing choking accidents, learn some important ways to help your cat in a crisis.

Close-up of cat getting ready to cough up hairball.

What Can I Do?

Sometimes a cat choking incident is caused by a hairball that she can't expel, but accidents are more often the result of an object (food, hair tie or plastic toy) lodged in her throat. If you see your cat choking, try to remain as calm as possible while you determine whether or not her airway is really blocked. If it's simply a hairball, she will have it out in a few seconds. If there is an obstruction, you will need to follow two steps.

  1. Mouth sweep: First, gently open your cat's jaws and sweep her mouth with your index finger to see if you can remove the obstruction. Look inside her mouth while you're checking for an object to avoid pushing anything farther down her throat, says Cat-World Australia, and gently pull her tongue forward to check the back of her throat. If you don't see anything in her mouth or cannot conduct a safe sweep, move on to the Heimlich maneuver.
  2. Cat Heimlich: When performing a cat Heimlich maneuver you hold your kitty with her back against your chest and her feet hanging. Use your hands to gently but firmly push on her belly in a succession of quick, upward thrusts, about five times. If your first set of blows doesn't dislodge the object, says PetCoach, hold your cat up by her back hips with her head down and gently sweep her mouth again. Tap your hand firmly against her back and check her mouth again. After you remove the obstruction, bring your cat to the nearest emergency veterinary clinic immediately.

Can I Prevent My Cat From Choking?

Eliminating cat choking hazards in the first place is a key way to keep your pet safe. Take a walk through your home and think like a cat: What's small, shiny and could be easily swallowed? Common choking hazards include:

  • Craft supplies like pom-poms and pipe cleaners
  • Rubber bands
  • Paper clips and staples
  • Plastic bags and cellophane
  • Bottle caps and wine corks
  • Straws
  • Aluminum foil

Curious cats will go exploring when you're not home, so store your stuff in a pet-proof location. Never let your kitty play with trash like wadded-up aluminum foil or plastic bags. She may have fun doing it, but it only takes a second for those objects to become stuck in her throat.

Calico kitten playing with toy.

Cat Toy Safety

Some cat toys can be dangerous as well. Avoid toys that have dangling decorations like feathers, bells and googly eyes. Opt for larger toys like balls, toy mice or crumpled pieces of paper that are larger than your cat's mouth. The two of you can enjoy supervised playtime with the popular fishing pole-style toys, but tuck them out of reach when your cat is out of your sight.

Despite the common image of a cute kitten playing with a ball of yarn, it's not safe for your cat to play with any kind of string or ribbons — they are choking hazards. If your cat has a string hanging out of her mouth (or rectum) says Animal Planet, do not try to pull it out. You could damage her throat or intestines. Consider it an emergency situation and contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your cat has swallowed string.

What Else Causes Choking?

In rare cases your cat could be hacking and gasping because of an underlying health issue. When your kitty throws up a hairball, for example, she coughs until the pesky wad of hair comes up. This isn't a choking emergency, but it's uncomfortable for your furry friend. A hairball that won't come up could lead to serious medical problems if it becomes trapped and blocks the digestive track. If your cat hacks up a hairball more than once a week or so, talk to your vet about starting her on a hairball control food or other regimen that will keep wads from forming. Hairballs can also be a sign of underlying gastrointestinal disease.

In some cases, the Cornell Feline Health Center notes, frequent gagging may be a sign of a gastrointestinal problem or a respiratory ailment like asthma. To determine what's causing the coughing and find help for your cat, make an appointment with your vet.


Christine O'Brien