Anyone who has shared life with a pet knows that our furry companions are capable of ingesting some pretty incredible things. While working in small animal practice, I witnessed several interesting objects being pulled out of the stomach and small intestine of dogs and cats – toys, dishtowels, pantyhose, rocks, needles and thread, even a little green plastic army man.
Unfortunately, some pets will eat almost anything that fits down their esophagus (dogs are especially prone to swallowing things that were never meant to be eaten, although cats are certainly not immune). Luckily, many smaller items are able to be unceremoniously passed in the stool, so more often than not, we never even find out about our pets’ little dietary indiscretions.
But what happens if an object isn’t able to pass safely?
Houston, We Have a Problem
An intestinal blockage is extremely serious. When this happens, not only is food unable to pass through the GI tract, but the stuck object (now called a “foreign body”) can cause blood flow to be blocked to that section of the intestine, causing the tissue to die.
Sometimes, if the foreign body is fabric (such as the aforementioned dishtowel), the intestine can be damaged as the GI tract tries to move the object through. The back and forth motion of the gut contracting and relaxing can cause fibers in the fabric to saw back and forth, resulting in dangerous microscopic cuts to the intestine.
This can lead to a condition known as peritonitis – an inflammation in the abdominal cavity caused by bacteria leaking from the gut directly into the abdomen.
The most common warning signs of a blockage in the GI tract include vomiting, refusal to eat or drink, and unexplained weight loss. The pet may also act sluggish, pace restlessly, or show signs of pain or tenderness in his abdomen.
If you observe any of these symptoms in your pet, call your veterinarian immediately. Obstructions can occur within a matter of hours…and time is of the essence!
The quickest way for your veterinarian to determine if your pet has ingested something he shouldn’t have is to take a quick abdominal x-ray. Many times the suspected item will show up clearly on the x-ray, as seen in the images below.
However, if the item is fabric, rubber, or any other type of soft material, it may not be clearly visible. In this case, your vet may look for other clues (like an abnormal gas pattern) on the image. If the x-ray is inconclusive, the vet may suggest performing an ultrasound or endoscopy to identify the foreign body and try to determine exactly where it is stuck.
Then What Happens?
If your pet is diagnosed with a GI tract obstruction, don’t panic…there are several ways to remove the troublesome item.
If the object is still in your pet’s stomach and hasn’t yet moved into the small intestine, it can sometimes be removed by using an endoscope, which is a long, thin tube with a light and camera on the end. Once your pet is under general anesthesia, the vet can insert the endoscope through his mouth, down into the esophagus, and into his stomach. From there, the item can be grasped with a specialized tool on the end of the scope and brought back up and out through his mouth.
If the foreign body has already moved out of the stomach and into the intestine, and is lodged there, exploratory surgery may be needed to locate and remove it. If the object is found and removed in time, and damage to the gut is not too severe, your pet may be expected to make a complete recovery.
Hindsight is 20/20
Let’s face it, no matter how diligent we are, sometimes it’s almost impossible to keep our pets from ingesting inedible objects. However, we can do our best to eliminate any potential hazards in their environment.
Do not leave garbage out in a place accessible to dogs or cats, and discard any broken or frayed toys. If you have a new puppy in the house, it’s especially important to “puppy-proof” your home – block access to power cords, shoes, remote controls and smartphones, fabric items like socks or dishtowels, houseplants, office supplies, and any other small items that can be inadvertently swallowed.
Additionally, some dogs have a penchant for rooting through the litter box in search of what we affectionately used to call “kitty chocolate” (I know, ewwwww). In this case, clumping cat litter can cause a GI obstruction if ingested, so limiting your dog’s access to the litter box is always a good idea.
If you happen to witness your dog or cat swallowing a potentially hazardous object, don’t panic. A quick call to your vet can tell you if your pet should be seen immediately, or if chances are good that the object will pass on its own.
Do you have any stories about interesting items your pet has swallowed, either accidentally or on purpose? If so, tell us about it in the comments!