Dogs and cats are naturally curious creatures. Unfortunately, sometimes this curiosity can get them into serious trouble when they eat things that they should not. Many non-food and some food items have the potential to get stuck somewhere along the line in the gastrointestinal tract and can cause life-threatening problems. Some common foreign bodies include strings, toys, rocks, sticks, garbage items, pits from fruit, bones, clothing items like socks or underwear, and blankets or towels. If you know or suspect that your pet has eaten something they shouldn’t have, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Clinical signs that can be seen with foreign bodies may include: vomiting, anorexia (loss of appetite), abdominal pain, dehydration, lethargy (decreased energy), and diarrhea. With linear foreign bodies, like strings, they may get wrapped around the base of the tongue and can cause gagging, retching, hypersalivation (excess drooling) and chomping or repeated swallowing. If a foreign body gets stuck in the esophagus, it can lead to regurgitation – which may be mistaken for vomiting, as well as the signs mentioned above for linear foreign bodies. If an item makes it to your pet’s colon, it should generally be able to pass, but if there is ever something that is protruding from the anus that the animal cannot pass themselves, resist the urge to pull it out and seek veterinary attention.
If your pet comes in with signs of a foreign body, the next step after the initial exam and history will be recommending diagnostics, which will likely include bloodwork and x-rays. Bloodwork gives an indication of overall health and to rule out other possible causes of clinical signs like pancreatitis or enteritis. Special x-rays using contrast, or an abdominal ultrasound may also be performed.
Once a foreign body obstruction has been diagnosed or is strongly suspected, treatment is often surgery to remove the blockage once the animal is stable. The obstruction can interfere with the blood supply to the stomach or intestines and cause these tissues to die. Linear foreign bodies like strings can cause bunching of the intestines and can saw through the bowel. If either of these happen then gut contents will be released into the abdomen and cause a peritonitis and septic shock, which are life-threatening complications. Sometimes an esophageal or stomach obstruction can be corrected with an endoscope under general anesthesia.
Thankfully, most uncomplicated gastrointestinal foreign bodies come with a very good prognosis. Factors that can contribute to the outcome include the location of the object, how long it has been there, what the item is (size, shape, texture), whether it has caused secondary illness, and overall health of the pet prior to the obstruction.
In this situation, prevention is the best medicine. Limit access to tempting items and provide toys that are the right size and made of materials that will not break down or come apart easily. It is also important to examine toys often for signs of wear and tear or damage.
Dr. Kim Jones joined the North Peace Veterinary Clinic care team in 2009 after graduating with distinction from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.