Here is a scenario that almost anybody who has had a dog has probably experienced at one time. You are puttering around the house when out of the corner of your eye you notice the dog intently doing something, and when the dog is doing something that intently it usually means she is up to no good. You turn and ask "What have you got there?". The dog looks up and freezes, a green novelty sock you bought for your husband dangling out of her mouth. You lock eyes for one second, and then as you rapidly advance toward the dog she just as rapidly starts chewing and gulping. You get there just in time to see the tip of the toe disappear down the gullet. What do you do now?
Veterinarians spend quite a bit of surgical time and energy removing non-food items from the intestines of pets. There is no question that intestinal blockages can be quite fatal if not addressed. Something that might be surprising, however, is a dog’s capacity to pass all manner of things safely through its digestive tract without outside interference. When a owner calls after witnessing their pet eating a rock, disposable razor blades, or a $9000 wedding ring my answer is usually not to go straight to surgery. We wait, and only if problems develop do we proceed to surgical relief.
If your dog is smiling, active, eating and drinking, passing stool and wagging her tail then she is not having a problem and should just be watched. Signs of dangerously clogged intestines are usually relentless vomiting, extreme lethargy, and not passing any stool. Knowing these symptoms helps when you don’t witness the offending incident, so you don’t wait for a week hoping it will get better as it gets worse and worse. The classic intestinal foreign body case is a nine month old Labrador Retriever who has been wildly hyperactive up until yesterday, and all of a sudden is vomiting like crazy, lying around like a rug, and not passing any stool.
Cats tend to be a little more discriminating about what they eat, but we often see young cats in particular who have accidentally swallowed parts of things they were playing with and end up with the same symptoms dogs have.
There are some exceptions to the wait-and-see approach when your pet has ingested a non-food item. Medications and toxins (like rat poison) need to be evacuated from the system within one to two hours to have much hope of preventing absorption of the drug or poison. Many pet medications are designed to taste good so that they are easy to give, but a highly motivated dog may knock the bottle off the counter and help himself to the entire batch in one sitting. When a dog eats a whole bottle of anti inflammatory medication the first symptoms of illness will not start until about three days after ingestion. At that point all of the medication will have been absorbed. The vomiting and misery that follows is due to his liver and kidneys failing and a hole being burned in his stomach. There is nothing we can do at that point besides offer supportive care and cross our fingers that the dose was not so big that it will be fatal.
Foraging from the spare change container is another situation that may become problematic even when the coins are not causing an obstruction. Pennies that were minted after 1985 are actually zinc wafers with a thin layer of copper on the outside. The weight of the coins tends to keep them sitting in the stomach for a long time, and during that time the copper is dissolved from the outside of the pennies and the pet starts absorbing the zinc into its system. In large quantities zinc causes red blood cells to explode, resulting in a potentially fatal anemia. One penny is enough to kill a small dog, and surgery can be risky in a critically anemic patient. If we know ahead of time it is much safer and easier to remove coins from an animal who is not yet compromised.
Cats will sometimes swallow a needle with thread on it if they were playing with it. There is a reasonable possibility that the needle could pass without problems, but if the needle penetrates through the intestines, dragging its contaminated thread behind it, it will migrate through the body spreading infection. Needles are usually easy to see on x-rays, but once they are causing infection and inflammation they can be devilishly difficult to locate surgically, which of course is the only solution to the problem. It is almost always safer and easier to get a needle out before problems occur.
So why do our pets feel the need to eat all manner of ridiculous things? I know dogs that would claim that their daily rations are so woefully inadequate so they have to scavenge and live by their wits in order to survive, but their girth tends to tell us otherwise. In reality I think it is just the pet tax that every pet owner must pay in some form or another for the privilege of having four-legged company.