It happened at the end of her shift.

Dr. Valerie Whalen at VCA Hanson Animal Hospital heard the message on speakers throughout the hospital: “Veterinary technician to the front desk!” An emergency had just come in. The client had been rushing to another veterinary hospital, but the animal in the car had suddenly stopped breathing and passed out. VCA Hanson Animal Hospital was on the way, so they made a quick turn and pulled right into the driveway.

"Of course, this was not the first time an animal with breathing problems had come in the doors at the hospital," says Dr. Whalen. But it was the first time for Whalen that the animal wasn’t a cat or dog—but a lamb.

“I’m exclusively small animal,” Whalen says. “I hadn’t laid hands on a large animal since veterinary school.”

While a technician grabbed the lamb and ran to the treatment area to meet Whalen, another gathered information from the client.

The medical team immediately started digging around for anything in the mouth or throat that might be keeping air from his lungs.

“We found grain and a lot of saliva,” Whalen says. The small lamb had gotten a little too excited about a meal and accidentally inhaled some of it. Whalen used a variation of the Heimlich maneuver—a procedure where a bystander or medical professional uses quick pushing below the rib cage to dislodge food or other items stuck in the airway.

“At the time, we weren’t sure the procedure we use on dogs would work on the sheep, but it was worth a try,” she says.

Credentialed Veterinary Technician Supervisor Katie R. helped Dr. Whalen run surgical tubing down the lamb’s throat to suck out more grain, while other team members put a drug line directly into one of the lamb’s veins (intravenously, as in anesthesia).

“It was a whole hospital effort,” Whalen says. Some team members assisted directly with the case, like Dr. Beth Jewett and Dr. Sarah Kussman as well as veterinary technicians Elissa, Katie E., Katie R. and Melissa. Others—Brian, Matthew and Akasha—manned the phones and the front desk or helped finish up other appointments during the emergency.

“These are the types of stories that should be shared and celebrated, and remind us of why we do what we do," says Dr. Patricia Dettlinger. "Our amazing teams take on difficult and unique challenges each and every day in our hospitals. They should be applauded for their incredible work and resiliency.”

Luckily, the situation only stayed especially dangerous for the first few minutes, Whalen says: “Initially, he didn’t appear to be breathing, but we never lost the heart rate. Then he finally started struggling a bit,” which was a good sign.

The team cleared out remaining grain and saliva and diagnosed the lamb with pneumonia, a condition when viruses, bacteria or inhaled substances cause irritation in the lungs. This case had likely been caused by “aspiration” (“breathing in”) of the grain. After the lamb was conscious again, the VCA team called Dr. Paige Graziano, the lamb’s regular veterinarian, who works one day a week at VCA Hanson Animal Hospital.

The team helped rehydrate the parched lamb, and Graziano showed up later to look over the lamb and prescribe antibiotics to help treat the pneumonia.

“The lamb made a full recovery, and the owner sent us a lovely thank-you note,” Whalen says.

While the team at VCA Hanson Animal Hospital offers world-class medicine with hometown care to pets every day, Whalen says this was a special “feel-good moment” when, right in that moment, the team saved a life.

Regional Medical Director Dr. Patricia Dettlinger says the story highlights the outstanding care and caring at VCA Hanson: “These are the types of stories that should be shared and celebrated, and remind us of why we do what we do.  Our amazing teams take on difficult and unique challenges each and every day in our hospitals. They should be applauded for their incredible work and resiliency.”

So, what if your animal—cat, dog, lamb, cow, cow, rodent or snake—seems to be having trouble breathing? Whalen says to call your veterinarian. VCA hospitals are always just an internet search and phone call away. 

“If your pet is coughing or sneezing, a veterinary technician or veterinarian on the phone can ask you some questions to see whether it can wait for an appointment or is an emergency,” Whalen says.

True choking, as with this lamb, is uncommon—a case where no air is getting through and an animal may already be unconscious. However, the problem is a serious emergency.

Dettlinger says that difficulty breathing can result from a variety of conditions. In a choking situation, she says you should carefully try to check the pet’s airway to make sure it’s open: “Often a toy or food can create an airway obstruction.”

If you can see what’s causing the blockage, try to swipe it away. Don’t, however, put your hand in the mouth or down the throat of your pet. You or the pet could be injured, and you might accidentally force the object further down the throat.

If that doesn’t work, you can next try the Heimlich maneuver for cats and dogs may be attempted by laying your pet on their side, holding your pet’s back against your stomach, finding the soft hollow spot underneath the ribcage, and pulling up sharply two or three times toward your own stomach.

“Then if your pet is still struggling for air, clearly in distress,” Whalen says, “get them to the veterinarian immediately.” 

When an emergency strikes, be confident that high-quality care is close to home. Click here to locate the closest 24/7 veterinary emergency hospital near you.