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What do I do if my pet stops breathing? Vet tech gives advice on how to save your pet's life

May 27, 2024

IDAHO FALLS — As a pet owner, it’s easy to obsess about their health.

Are they eating enough? Are they overeating? Are they going to choke on a tennis ball? Is their collar too tight? What if something happens to them and I don’t know how to help?

Much like human babies, pets can’t communicate with us when they’re hurt, so pet owners are often left panicking.

One of the most common causes of this panic is when a pet is having trouble breathing. Did they swallow a chew toy, or are they having a medical emergency? sat down with a vet tech to find out how to save a furry friend in an emergency.

“The first thing that we see most-commonly is dogs that do what we call “hoover-ing” their food. They seem to just suck it up so fast that it’s gone immediately,” says Jocelynn Taylor, a Veterinary Technician at Broadway Veterinary Clinic in Idaho Falls. “Dogs like labradors, just, it’s gone instantly, so they’re at risk for something called aspiration, which is just basically like, when (humans) do it, we call it “went down the wrong tube.”

Other times, pets can require medical assistance.

“They do choke on toys or something like that. They break off pieces, and it will get caught in their airway, usually, more jagged plastic-y pieces or toy ropes that are long and stringy,” says Taylor. “It usually doesn’t happen as often in cats. Cats are generally a little smarter about that kind of thing. No offense to dogs, I love them.”

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If your pet has a medical emergency, Taylor suggests using the ‘ABC’s’ to decide what the course of action should be.

“Some dogs will be aspirating because they have something in their throat, other dogs will be having a pulmonary or cardiac event, and they will stop breathing for reasons like a stroke, a heart attack or something like that,” says Taylor. “So you want to make sure their airway is clear.”

Taylor says the first step should be to tilt the head back and ensure the trachea is straight.

“Like you see on TV, they tilt their neck back and make sure that their mouth is open. If you can, reach in with your fingers and get something out,” says Taylor. “Obviously, don’t if the dog is awake enough to be chomping at your hand, but if it is available to you, then try and clear out their airway.”

Second, ensure they’re breathing, even if it’s barely. This way, you will know how emergent the situation is.

“If you have a little compact or a phone, anything reflective, you can put it next to their nose, and it will fog it up. You can see if they’re breathing that way. Dogs will breathe through their nose and their mouth, and cats are what is called obligate nasal breathers,” says Taylor. “If a cat is breathing out of their mouth, it means something is really wrong, they don’t ever pant, really. If they’re not breathing out of their nose and their mouth is closed, they’re not breathing at all, typically.”

Lastly, it’s time to check the pet’s heart. Ensuring there is a pulse is vital in saving a pet experiencing a medical emergency.

“You can feel for a pulse in a few different places. You can feel it in their chest, but if you have a really deep-chested dog, sometimes that’s a little harder to do,” says Taylor. “There is a pulse point on their femur, on the inside of their leg, that you can sometimes feel if you know when you’re looking, it’s just right along their femur bone, it’s called the femoral pulse.”

If a pulse can’t be found anywhere on the animal, or if the airway can’t be cleared, then it’s time to start CPCR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

According to Taylor, performing CPR on a pet is almost exactly like humans, but with a few small tweaks.

“Most people who have any kind of lifeguard training or have been to a parenting class should be able to safely perform it on a pet. It can be absolutely nerve-wracking, especially with cats who are really small,” says Taylor. “You feel like you’re going to break something. But it can be safely performed at home in case of an emergency.”

First, lay the animal on it’s side, preferably left.

“Then you’re going to compress the chest a third of the way in, and then you’re going to let it fully recoil. It needs to go all the way back up. It’s called intrathoracic pressure, it will be able to fully go back up, and that will actually cause the lungs to expand as well,” says Taylor. “So you’re doing compressions on the heart, but it is also compressing the lungs to order to give them artificial breath during that. You want to do it at 100 bpm, just like you would for a person.”

For bigger dogs, use both hands, says Taylor. For animals around 30 pounds, use one hand; and for smaller animals like cats, a different approach is used.

“For anything smaller, like cats, you would actually do it as you would for babies,” said Taylor. “So you would cup your hand completely around the ribcage, and you would actually use your thumb to do it.”

If you need to use life-saving measures, especially if the pet is unconscious, it’s probably time to get to the vet.

“A lot of the time, if you’re at the point where you’re performing CPR at home, you’ll want a vet to come to your home because it might not be safe to move the animal,” says Taylor. “But if that’s not an option, I would have someone doing CPR while you take them to the vet.”

If the pet ever loses consciousness, immediately take them to the closest emergency vet.

“The most typical sign is when their eyes roll into what we call ventral medial, so it will look like they’re staring cross eyed at their nose, and their third eyelid in the corner will be rolled over. For us, our eyes roll into the back of our heads, but for them, their eyes will roll down,” says Taylor. “If they’re kind of paddling their legs where it almost looks like they’re having a seizure, it’s because they can’t breathe, so they’re kind of scared.”

For cats, Taylor says if the feline looks “floppy”, get them to a vet immediately.

“They don’t look like they don’t have any muscle mass. You can pick them up and they flop right back down,” says Taylor. “You can pick up an arm, and a lot of animals will retract it, but an animal that’s unconscious will immediately drop it back down.”

If the pet seems to struggle to breathe for more than 15 minutes, that is another sign you should seek medical help.

“Let’s say your dog is fully conscious, they’re walking around, but they can’t seem to catch their breath. If they’re just sitting there panting, you want to get them to a vet because that’s usually a sign of some kind of organ problem,” says Taylor. “We want to make sure we can get the bloodwork on that, we can get X-rays, maybe see if that’s necessary so we can see what kind of underlying issue is causing the outward physical reaction.”

So how do we keep our furry friends from getting into scary situations where we might not know how to help?

“There are the obvious answers like giving them big toys that they can’t break up, or don’t give them rawhides because they tend to expand when they’re wet, so they can get caught pretty easily,” says Taylor. “There are more difficult answers, like if there is something you specifically don’t want your dog chewing on, you can put some kind of spray on it, like a bitter apple spray, so it doesn’t taste good to chew on.”

More advice is to make sure your dog is comfortable with you putting your hands in their mouth. This is especially important to do while they are puppies so they grow up comfortable with you trying to help them in case of an emergency.

“Some of it is just discipline, so if the dog is chewing on something, I would practice putting your hands in your dog’s mouth so that they’re not aggressive with you at all. So if there is a case where they have something small in their mouth, you’re able to reach out their mouth and grab it without any harm coming to you,” says Taylor. “Because you never want to put yourself in danger, you are always the first priority, you don’t want to be sticking your hand in the mouth of a dog who might bite you.”

So next time you are worried about your pet, remember your ABC’s and follow these easy steps to keep your furry friend healthy and happy.


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