Help! My pet has eaten….? Foreign bodies in dogs and cats
It is very common for dogs to eat things they shouldn’t, and sometimes this can get them into trouble. It is less common but still possible in cats, who tend to be more careful about what they choose to eat. In this article our vet advises what to look for and how to prevent this common problem.
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With any given object (foreign body) an animal eats, there is always a risk of it getting stuck in the gastro-intestinal tract (the gut). This can happen anywhere from getting lodged in the mouth, down to the oesophagus and stomach, all the way through the small intestine and right up until the rectum.
Choking is very uncommon in dogs and cats, and usually only affects certain breeds such as pugs and other short nosed dogs where the angle of their oesophagus and windpipe makes them more susceptible to choking.
Symptoms of a foreign body blockage
The symptoms will vary depending upon where the object is stuck but can include:
Vomiting/regurgitation - often repeated and can be large quantities of vomitus. Often this will persist over several days and they may not be able to keep even water down
Abdominal pain - hunched back, stretching out more, doing odd movements that can look like they have taken up yoga recently, reluctance to move, depressed demeanour, cry when being touched or picked up
Nausea - salivation, not eating
Change in stools - sometimes the absence of faeces or changes in the shape, colour or texture of the stool
If the object is stuck in the mouth - licking lips, pawing at mouth, chomping jaw, reluctance to eat, blood or saliva coming from the mouth
If the object is stuck in the oesophagus the above may occur plus unequal pupil size - Horner’s syndrome
What do I do if my dog has eaten a foreign body?
The best option is to phone your vet. They will make a decision based on the object and the size of your dog. If the object is at very high risk of getting stuck, they may choose to make your dog sick to remove the item from their stomach (eg a sock). This is not possible if the object is sharp, for example broken plastic.
If the item cannot be bought up by vomiting, then either it will be removed surgically, or time will be given to see if it passes naturally. You would be surprised at what objects animals do pass on their own.
What happens if my dog has symptoms of a foreign body blockage?
If your dog has the above symptoms, then an examination should be performed by your vet. If your vet is then suspicious of a blockage in the gut, the next step will then be imaging. x-rays and sometimes ultrasound can be performed, and this may require sedation or a general anaesthetic, to look for evidence that an obstruction is present.
How are foreign body blockages treated?
If a foreign body is identified that is causing a blockage, then surgery is usually required. This is performed through an incision into the abdominal cavity to assess the gastro-intestinal tract (called an exploratory laparotomy) and remove the foreign material. Sometimes a portion of the intestinal will need to be removed. It may be possible to remove the object using a special camera (endoscopy).
Occasionally, we do not find any obvious cause for the symptoms, because though we can often be very sure an obstruction is present, we can’t always be 100% sure. In this situation, biopsies may be taken and the abdominal contents thoroughly examined. Having access to detailed imaging, such as an abdominal ultrasound scan by a specialist ultrasonographer, will increase the likelihood of being able to identify a foreign body with better certainty. This is not always possible due to financial constraints.
What can go wrong?
Unfortunately foreign bodies in the gut are a cause of death in both dogs and cats in the UK. Perforation of the gut due to foreign material or breakdown of the gut incision after surgery can lead to bacteria leaking into the abdomen and septic peritonitis. This can lead to septic shock and death. In rare cases aspiration of gut contents built up in the stomach can lead to pneumonia, and rarely death. If a foreign body is present for a long period and causes shock, this can be fatal if left untreated.
How can I protect my dog?
It is impossible to stop your dog from eating things all the time, no matter how good a dog owner you are. The below points can help prevent your dog becoming fatally ill from an obstruction:
Do not leave your dog with any objects and toys that could be swallowed. Supervise your dog with any chews or toys to make sure they are being appropriately used
Avoid toys with small objects that could be easily chewed and swallowed
Put all small items of clothing (socks, underwear etc) in a place that dogs do not have access to. You would be surprised at how many dogs steal socks or pairs of pants from the washing basket
Do not allow your pets to play with ribbon or string
If your dog is a serious repeat offender, it may be beneficial to walk them in a muzzle. Basket muzzles are usually the best for allowing panting whilst still offering protection
Teach your dog a leave command. This is best done at training classes to learn techniques for asking your dog to drop something. Offering them a super tasty alternative may be a good way to encourage them to drop what is in their mouth
If your dog has the above symptoms, take them to a vet as soon as possible. Equally if you have visited a vet but the symptoms reoccur, take your pet back to the vet
If you have seen your pet ingest a known item, call your vet straight away. They can make a dog sick if the object has been eaten 1-2 hours previously, and for something like a sock this is the best way to remove it from the gut. There are other objects, such as needles, which your vet may want to remove immediately with surgery instead of giving it time to pass. If in doubt check!
Know your dog. Some dogs are much more prone to eating things than others. Some dogs shred and swallow things in small bits whereas others eat whole objects. This information is important to tell your vet
Still have questions?
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