Surgically retrieving non-food items that have become lodged in the digestive tract of family pets is a fairly common activity in veterinary medicine. I am no longer surprised at the astounding variety of things that animals ingest for no logical reason. Dogs are by far the worst offenders. I frequently remove socks, underwear, used feminine hygiene products, rocks, toys, corn cobs, and miscellaneous odds and ends that have accumulated in the stomach and gotten tangled together to create a ball big enough to plug up some guts. Sometimes we get more exotic souvenirs like part of the handlebars from the neighbor kid’s bike that ended up mysteriously destroyed 5 months ago or an heirloom engagement ring nestled next to the pawn that had been missing from the chess set for the past 2 weeks.
Cats tend to be a little more discerning about what they eat, but they can develop strong fixations about some things that can cause them problems. I had one patient who had intestines full of hair bands and was so sick and painful she hadn’t eaten for a week, but when she saw another hair band on the floor she ran right over to it and tried to gobble it down in spite of her condition. I have had similar feline repeat offenders who insisted on chewing the ends off of baby bottles, which happen to be just the right diameter to get stuck in the small intestine.
Owners frequently see their pets eating all manner of non-food items and then call to see what they should do. Most of the time we recommend they watch and wait. It is truly amazing what a dog may be able to jam through his digestive tract or vomit up without any negative effects at all. We usually don’t consider surgery unless a pet is showing signs that there is a problem. The symptoms of intestinal obstruction are: not eating, vomiting frequently, acting painful and lethargic, and not passing any stool. Most of the time when a pet has a gastrointestinal blockage you will have no doubt that something is wrong, and if you actually saw him ingesting the object then you are ahead of the game.
Much of the time we do not actually witness the ingestion of the foreign object and just discover a pet who is feeling bad and need to find out why. From a veterinarian’s perspective it would be polite for pets to only eat things that show up obviously on x-rays like rocks and metal objects. Unfortunately cloth and many rubber and plastic items do not show up on x-rays, so we have to piece together evidence from how the rest of the abdomen looks and our degree of suspicion from history and physical exam. When in doubt we will often have the patient swallow barium, a white paste that shows up brightly on x-rays as it travels through the digestive tract. If it runs down to a point and then stops, or sticks to the outside of an object and outlines it on the x-ray we can be more sure of what we are dealing with.
When there is something lodged in the intestines surgery is the solution. It is expensive and invasive, but when the obstruction is removed in a timely manner it usually carries a good prognosis for complete recovery. The longer the problem goes unaddressed the more likely a pet is to have life-threatening complications like sections of gut that loose their blood supply and die. Waiting and hoping things will get better tends to lead to unsalvageable problems down the line.
There is only so much we can do to manage our pet’s propensity to get themselves into trouble, but there are a few simple things that may save heartache in the long run. If your dog vomits up socks or underwear or your cat vomits up hair bands consider yourself warned. This time you got lucky, but next time those items may get stuck. Make sure your pet doesn’t have access to those things because he has told you that he likes them and he will eat them again. I tell kids in the exam room that they need to keep their clothes picked up if they don’t want their veterinarian parading their underwear around the office after removing it from the dog’s stomach. If your dog loves to tear the squeakers out of stuffed toys you can be sure he is ingesting some of the stuffing too. Anything a dog can chew into pieces is not a good choice for a toy. Rope chew toys in particular are responsible for the largest percentage of unsurvivable foreign bodies that I see.
It truly is impossible to prevent all the knuckleheaded self-destructive behavior that our pets will engage in, but at least we can address some of the obvious problems and can know what to look for when they sneak around our defenses anyway.