What to Do if Your Cat is Choking

Published by Christine O'Brien
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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 manoeuvre 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 they can't expel, but accidents are more often the result of an object (food, hair tie or plastic toy) lodged in the throat. If you see your cat choking, try to remain as calm as possible while you determine whether or not their airway is really blocked. If it's simply a hairball, your cat 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 the mouth with your index finger to see if you can remove the obstruction. Look inside the mouth while you're checking for an object to avoid pushing anything farther down the throat, says Cat-World Australia, and gently pull the tongue forward to check the back of the throat. If you don't see anything or cannot conduct a safe sweep, move on to the Heimlich manoeuvre.
  2. Cat Heimlich: When performing a cat Heimlich manoeuvre you hold your kitty with their back against your chest and feet hanging. Use your hands to gently but firmly push on the 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 the back hips with head down and gently sweep their mouth again. Tap your hand firmly against the back and check the 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
  • Aluminium 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 rubbish like wadded-up aluminium foil or plastic bags. They may have fun doing it, but it only takes a second for those objects to become stuck in their 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 their mouth (or rectum) says Animal Planet, do not try to pull it out. You could damage the 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, they cough 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 tract. If your cat hacks up a hairball more than once a week or so, talk to your vet about starting them 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