On Stacey Mae, and Why It’s Important to Be Prepared for Emergencies

At first, choking was suspected in the tragic, sudden death of a therapy dog named Stacey Mae. Would you know what to do if your dog started choking?

Stacey Mae, Jan. 30, 2007 – Oct. 6, 2012

Last weekend, thousands of people whose lives had been touched by a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog named Stacey Mae were shocked and saddened to learn of the therapy dog’s sudden death.

Stacey Mae, a 2011 Hero Dog Awards therapy dog division winner, was a regular at nursing homes and hospitals, and had delivered thousands of toys as part of the Teddy Bear Project. Her death at age 5 came totally out of the blue.

At first, owner Maria Mandel and her family suspected Stacey had choked on a treat when she died Saturday. But on Tuesday a veterinarian ruled out choking as the cause of death, after an autopsy was performed.

Sadly, there’s nothing that could have been done to save Stacey’s life. Still, this high-profile incident is a reminder that all pet owners need to be prepared for emergencies before they happen.

So please share and bookmark the following advice on how (and when) to perform the Heimlich maneuver on your dog.

If your dog begins to choke, would you know what to do?

1. Make Sure the Dog Is Actually Choking

Choking can be a time-sensitive problem, as the trachea (windpipe) needs to be cleared immediately to prevent suffocation. However, difficulty in breathing is often mistaken for choking.

Symptoms of choking:

  • Excessive salivation
  • Gums turning white or blue
  • Struggling to breathe with little or no success
  • Gagging, coughing or wheezing
  • Dizziness
  • Pacing, circling or pawing at the mouth
  • Loss of consciousness

A dog that is choking will appear panicked and frantic and will probably be pawing at the mouth, trying to cough.

2. Try to Remove the Object – But Be Careful!

The best chance your dog has is to do a “finger sweep” to remove the foreign object. So force open the dog’s mouth and look for the object. Don’t forget to check the roof of the mouth.

BE CAREFUL, because the dog, who is panicking (you would be too), may very well bite you. If you can see the object, try to remove it with your fingers or with a flat spoon handle.

Two very big “don’ts”:

  1. DON’T push the object down farther.
  2. DON’T blindly feel around in the throat and tug at anything you feel, because it could be a bone inside the dog’s mouth that actually belongs there!

Small dogs: Can you see the object but can’t remove it? Hold your dog upside down in the air and swing the dog to try to dislodge the object.
Large dogs:
With the palm of your hand, give a sharp blow to your pet’s back, right between the shoulder blades.

Here’s a quick video that shows three ways to try to remove objects:

3. Still Stuck? Perform the Canine Heimlich Maneuver

Don’t wait for veterinary help — your dog may suffocate to death! If you are sure your dog is indeed choking, rather than experiencing breathing problems, do the following right now. You can try this while someone else is driving you and the dog to the emergency clinic:

  1. Small dogs: Hold the dog with her head up and body against your stomach, facing outward. Place the fist of one hand against her abdomen, right below the rib cage. Clasp your hands together and push inward and upward.
    Large dogs:
    Standing from behind, place your arms around your pet’s waist, like a bear hug. Her rear end should be nearest to you. (If the dog is unconscious, lay her on her back.) Clasp your hands together, making a fist. Place the thumbs of your fist just below the dog’s last set of ribs. Compress the abdomen by pushing up or squeezing toward the backbone.
  2. Allow your pet a moment to cough, then look inside her mouth to see if the object can be reached yet. If it has not come up, repeat this action five times if necessary.

If the object still won’t come out, or your pet becomes unconscious because her airways are blocked, begin CPR and rescue breathing techniques. Get her to your veterinarian as quickly as possible. It’s best if you attempt CPR as someone else is driving you and the dog to the vet.

Even if you successfully remove the blockage, your dog will need to be checked by your veterinarian to rule out any injury or health issues that may have surfaced during the procedure.

More Advice for Emergency Preparedness

The big thing to keep in mind is that your dog likely isn’t choking. Says Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, “Ninety-nine percent of phone calls I receive when clients think their dog is choking, they actually have a form of kennel cough or allergic cough. So real choking is thankfully very rare.”

“The dog is frantic if it is choking,” Dr. Lichtenberg continues. “If the dog has something stuck in the roof of its mouth (fairly common, usually a bone or tick), they are pawing at the mouth, distressed, but not, obviously, gasping for air. Most people think they have inspected the mouth or done the ‘finger sweep’ and still miss these in the roof of the mouth.”

Your vet can offer more tips on the canine Heimlich maneuver. Perhaps, he/she can also give you information on a pet first-aid course that may be available in your area.

The best way to prevent your pet from choking is to treat her as you do a child — keep a watchful eye on her and keep those objects that present a “danger zone” out of reach. After all, there is no cure for curiosity.

10 Common Choking Hazards for Pets

  1. Underwear, pantyhose, socks
  2. Bones and rawhides
  3. Small rubber balls
  4. Chew toys
  5. Fruit pits
  6. Food and gristle
  7. Food-coated plastics or cellophane wrap
  8. Sticks
  9. Stones
  10. Hair Ties

Remembering Stacey Mae

Maria told followers of the Stacey Mae’s Facebook page, “Stacey might have been only 5 years old, but she lived a life full of happiness and joy that makes up for her short time here with us.”

Gayle Hickman

View posts by Gayle Hickman
Gayle Hickman has been researching and writing about pet behaviors since 2011. In addition to Petful, her articles have appeared on Reader's Digest, Yahoo Shine and WebVet, to name a few.

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