The importance of a clear and open airway
If a human or dog is unconscious and lying on their back, their tongue is likely to flop back and block their airway. In addition, their epiglottis is no longer able to protect their airway from saliva and vomit.
If the casualty is unable to maintain an open airway they will die. In fact, many fatalities occur every year because of an obstructed airway. In many cases, simply tilting their head to open their airway could have saved their life.
The peril of a long tongue
Dogs have even longer tongues than humans, and these can curl back and form a substantial blockage to their airway. To clear a dog’s airway, lie them on their side (ideally right-hand side) and tilt their head back. Then very carefully and gently ease their tongue forward out of their mouth. Check to see if they have started breathing.
Dog recovery position
Most of us will have heard of the recovery position and how important it is for humans to help keep their airway clear – but did you know that it could help save your dog’s life too?
Our pets do sometimes need emergency medical attention and knowing some basic first aid, including how to put them in the recovery position, could really make all the difference.
Here’s our step-by-step guide to putting your dog in the recovery position.
Check for danger – ensure you are safe
Check for Response – approach them carefully, speak and then touch them
If there is no response – open the airway
To check that they are breathing, first open their airway very carefully, by pulling their tongue forward between their front teeth to clear it from the back of their throat. Remember: you would never do this with a human.
As well as opening the airways this also allows any secretions, such as vomit and saliva, to drain away.
Beware the bite reflex
Be especially careful that you do not get bitten, as if they are not fully unconscious, they may still have a bite reflex.
Loosen collars so it is easier for them to breathe
You should also remove their collar or harness or anything else that could cause any form of constriction around their neck or chest and make it harder for them to breathe.
Check for breathing
Put the back of your hand in front of their mouth and feel for their breath, or put your hand on their chest to feel for any chest movement. You could also try holding a wisp of fur in front of their nostrils to see if it moves as they exhale.
Unresponsive and breathing
Once you have established that they are unresponsive and breathing, the best position to help them maintain an open airway is to put them into the recovery position, ideally on their righthand side
Right to resuscitate
The righthand side is the best side as this will mean their heart is uppermost. If they should stop breathing and you need to do CPR, then they are already in the right position to resuscitate them.
Extend their head back slightly to keep the tongue forward off the back of their throat and their airway clear.
Phone the vet
Get veterinary advice as quickly as possible and prepare to transport them to the vet.
A parcel shelf, or some other rigid shelf can make a helpful makeshift scoop or stretcher.
Keep checking that they are breathing by putting the back of your hand in front of their mouth and feeling for their breath. You could also try holding a wisp of fur in front of their nostrils to see if it moves as they exhale. This lets you know whether the animal is breathing or not, and therefore whether artificial respiration is necessary. Slow or fast breathing rates can also indicate different conditions e.g. fast breathing rate could be due to heat stroke. Keep checking their pulse.
Take their pulse
Check the heart and pulse rate. This can help you ascertain whether the animal is alive and also whether there are any problems with the circulation.
- The easiest place to find the dog’s pulse is in the upper third of their thigh.
- Place your hand over the top of their thigh and gently squeeze your fingers just underneath their leg.
- You should be able to feel the artery pulsing here (your thumb has a strong pulse itself so don’t use this to take their pulse as otherwise you will be timing your own pulse rate).
- The femoral pulse can be difficult to find on pets with a greater fat covering.
- You can also listen for a heartbeat.
- Time the pulse for 15 seconds and multiply the result by 4 to get the beats per minute.
Watch for shock
If you are concerned that they may be going into shock, raise their hind quarters slightly and keep supported so that their body remains straight; gravity encourages the tongue to flop forward and the contents of the stomach to drain out. This keeps the airway clear and allows the animal to keep breathing.
Keep checking that they are still breathing:
Finally, once in the recovery position: keep checking that they are breathing.
Remember the key point: unconscious casualties often die – not from whatever made them unconscious in the first place – but because of a blocked airway stopping them from breathing.
First Aid for Pets provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for veterinary advice. The author does not accept any liability or responsibility for any inaccuracies or for any mistreatment or misdiagnosis of any person or animal, however caused. It is strongly advised that you attend a practical First Aid for Pets course or take our online course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.