I read somewhere (I think it was Bill Bryson's book on the origins of the English language) that of all animals, we are the only ones that can choke on food (having something to do with how our larynx is positioned). I'm unable to find reference to this fact online, however, and am curious if this is just my having misunderstood something (or Bill having led me astray!).

  • $\begingroup$ Choking fish and other animals are not cogent to the question. Fish breathe through gills (interaction with oxygenated water), dolphins have blow-holes in the top of their heads, etc. ?do horses and others have a breathing tract that does not intersect with their method of eating , especially drinking ? R.M. $\endgroup$
    – user15956
    May 28, 2015 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ In response to the answer, I add only that lizards and birds DO suffocate upon regurgitated food. Talk to herpetologists and bird keepers for ample, and sad experience with this. $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2017 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ Bill Bryson mentions this in 'The Body', chapter 6 "[...] uniquely among mammals we send our air and food down the same tunnel, only a small structure called the epiglottis [...]" That's what brought me here, but I listen to the audiobook so I can't tell if he gave a reference. $\endgroup$
    – phil_w
    Dec 25, 2022 at 23:58

4 Answers 4


The veterinarian in our group offers this: For humans, who choke much more frequently than other mammals, it is likely to be a cognitive problem. We talk and eat at the same time and so give ample opportunity to allow food passed the epiglottis and choking. Animals do choke - dogs can, cats can. Not all animals can vomit and this is particularly a problem for horses, whose stomachs will rupture instead of releasing contents through the mouth.

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    $\begingroup$ YIKES, didn't know that about the horses. Interesting $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2012 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ This is rather late, but would it be possible to add some citations? $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Dec 30, 2014 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ Horses also cannot breathe through their mouths. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 27, 2017 at 1:26

From the Smithsonian website:

Humans are the only mammal that cannot breathe and swallow at the same time, and we are the only species that can choke on its own food. The reason? The lowering of the voice box in our throats (during infancy) enables us to create the enormous range of sounds used in producing language; but this lowering of the voice box comes at a big cost in adulthood.


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    $\begingroup$ This is incorrect, any vertebrate that can breath through its mouth can choke on food. Not all animals can breathe through their mouths but many can. The shared portion of the esophagus and trachea called a pharynx and the pharynx varies quite a bit across vertebrates. a continuous pharynx is not exclusive to humans, humans just have a very large complex pharynx making much much easier for us to choke on our food. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 27, 2017 at 1:25

I don't agree with the accepted answer which seem to assume that food is chewed. I don't think that can be assumed if generally talking about animals and choking.

So in addition to Larry's statement of dogs and cats:

Fish regularly chokes on prey.

enter image description here

Birds can choke. enter image description here

Even dolphins choke: enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Can it be called choking if it isn't in the wind pipe, and if the animal doesnt breathe air? Perhaps the human is the only animal that can get food in their breathing apparatus. $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2016 at 20:43

There are different kinds of choking on food. All non-gilled animals also choke when they fall in the water. Drowning is choking. insects asphyxiate and fish asphyxiate in air but technically insects don't have any obstructed passages. Perhaps you can say fish choke when their mouth is obstructed with air, choking also means gulping because of asphyxiation of any kind.

  • An animal gets food in their wind-pipe, which is death from choking.
  • An animal gets food stuck in their eusophagus, which is perhaps indigestion, not directly choking.

Yes! Humans are the only known animals whos recent evolution has dgiven them one of the worst throat control of all throated animals, and who can easily get food inside their breathing apparatus and die from it, who can choke on vomit and who can't regurgitate as efficiently, and who can't breathe and drink. The valve used for dividing the air and food channels has changed and is used by the humans for speaking.

enter image description here enter image description here In other mammals the eusophagus is different: The larynx is fixed at the top of the throat and can make a valve at the back of the nose to form a breathing tube parallel to the esophagus.

Humans are speaking through the valve that is normally used to drink and breathe at the same time. When they drink, the Adams apple raises to form a valve at the top but it doesn't form a continuous airway to breathe while drinking.

For other animals such as birds and fish, it is especially important to breathe and eat simultaneously because

A/ they can drink large volumes at waterholes in competitions with other animals and as potential quarry

B/ Herbivores can spend much larger amounts of time than humans eating, ruminating, and if they have less breath for running then it's a disadvantage

C/ Carnivores can eat much larger chunks than humans, they regurgitate it to their children, they get larger things stuck in their throat, so they have much more performant and controlled throat functions

D/ Birds and Lizards regurgitate foods and get them stuck in their throat and it would be a problem for them if the suffocated or got regurgitated food stuck in their windpipe because they didn't have an adequate valve there.

E/Fish dont have as constricted a junction between their breathing and eating functions. Here is an excerpt from a book:

In most Animals the larynx sits high in the throat and serves as a valve. As the animal drinks, the larynx forms a continuous tube with the space at the back of the nose, thus the airway -trachea to nose- forms a continuous hose that runs up through through the space of the mouth and throat into the esophagus. in other words the animal can drink and breathe at the same time. The larynx of the human being has been repositioned half way down the throat as the Adam's apple of the male makes clear. So the human being cant drink and breathe at the same time without choking. That seems like a disadvantage- except that the descent of the larynx leaves a large space above it which acts as an echo chamber.

If a human makes a siren sound while touching the adams apple he will see what the space is used for, it sounds same as a monkey when the adams apple is high at the top of a note. If a human also swallows and monitors his larynx he can imagine that other animals are the same except that their larynx performs better as a valve and doesn't have many octaves of controllable voice range.

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    $\begingroup$ How does this answer the question? $\endgroup$
    – kmm
    Dec 30, 2016 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ It explains the mechanical difference in the throat which means that humans are the only documented animals who can get food in their windpipe due to the recent evolution of speech which has displaced the valve they use to block their lungs while eating. i will write more of a yes no approach to it if you want. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2017 at 14:44

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