A Primer on Pets and Foreign-Body Ingestion

Dec 18, 2019

A Primer on Pets and Foreign-Body Ingestion

Dogs, cats, and some small exotic pets are notorious for eating things they shouldn’t. Without hands, animals investigate things in their environment by smelling, and sometimes, tasting. Unfortunately, this curiosity can cause toxicity, severe illness, and possible gastric or intestinal obstruction. Non-food items that pets eat are known as foreign bodies, and they can cause significant problems.

What foreign bodies do pets commonly ingest?

Almost anything within paw’s reach can become a foreign body for a curious pet who has a tendency to eat non-food items. Dogs are more likely than cats to ingest foreign bodies, but certain items, such as string, are irresistible to cats. Items that pets commonly ingest include:

  • Bones
  • Small toys
  • Coins
  • Rocks
  • Hair ties
  • String and dental floss
  • Corn cobs
  • Small clothing items, such as socks and underwear
  • Feminine products
  • Bedding, fabric, and rugs

How can foreign-body ingestion affect pets?

Small items may be able to pass through a pet’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract without causing problems, and many pets likely eat and pass objects without their owners ever knowing. Some items, however, are too large to pass through the GI tract, and become lodged in the stomach or intestines. A foreign body that becomes stuck can create an obstruction that food cannot move past. As the intestines try to push the item along, it can rub against the wall and cause a hole, or perforation, through which contaminated intestinal contents can leak into the abdominal cavity. Life-threatening abdominal lining inflammation (i.e., peritonitis) and systemic infection (i.e., sepsis) can quickly develop and cause significant illness.

Linear foreign bodies, such as string or Christmas tree tinsel, can cause intestinal bunching that can also perforate the GI tract. Metal items, such as older coins or lead, can slowly dissolve and leak toxic elements into the body that cause systemic toxicity, such as severe anemia. 

What are foreign-body ingestion clinical signs in pets?

Foreign bodies that become an obstruction cause clinical signs related to the food material’s inability to pass, as well as systemic signs of sepsis, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Inappetance 
  • Lethargy 
  • Restlessness/pacing

Pets may defecate normally, or have diarrhea, in early obstruction stages; however, once fecal material beyond the obstruction passes, they likely will stop defecating. 

Female Veterinary Surgeon Examining X Ray

How is foreign-body ingestion diagnosed in pets?

If your family veterinarian suspects your pet has ingested a foreign body, he/she likely will take an abdominal X-ray, which typically will show objects made of metal and dense materials, but other materials may not be visible. If a foreign body is not obvious on X-rays, your veterinarian may look for characteristic intestinal gas patterns or other obstructive indicators. Your doctor may also have your pet ingest a liquid contrast agent that appears white on X-rays, and then take several timed X-rays to watch the liquid advance through the GI tract. Other diagnostic tests, such as blood work, may be used to evaluate your pet’s overall health condition. 

How is foreign-body ingestion treated in pets?

If a foreign body is small and non-toxic, and your veterinarian thinks the item can pass on its own, X-rays may be used to monitor its movement through your pet’s GI tract. A foreign body that causes an obstruction, however, must be removed immediately. Items located in the stomach may be removed with an endoscope, which is a flexible tube with a camera that can be inserted down the esophagus into the stomach. The foreign body can be located and visualized with the camera, and long forceps inserted down the tube to grasp and remove it. 

two veterinarian surgeons in operating room

Many foreign bodies require emergency surgery for removal, and your family veterinarian may refer you to the board-certified veterinary surgeons in AESC’s surgery department. During surgery, an incision is made into your pet’s abdominal cavity, the foreign body is located, and another incision is made into your pet’s stomach or intestine to remove the item. Any damaged portion of the intestine may be removed to prevent a perforation. 

Pets requiring foreign-body removal surgery are often quite ill, especially if perforation and sepsis have developed. Prognosis following surgery depends heavily on your pet’s overall health. Foreign-body removal can prevent further damage, but the systemic effects of sepsis may be too advanced, and severely affected pets may not survive.  

How can I prevent foreign-body ingestion in my pet?

Since foreign-body ingestion can have devastating consequences, prevention is the best way to keep your pet safe. Keep items your pet may be tempted to ingest out of reach by practicing these safety tips:

  • Keep children’s toys off the floor, or keep toy areas closed off to your pet.
  • Keep trash baskets stowed safely out of reach in cupboards or closets.
  • Never pour cooking liquids or grill grease onto rocks or gravel.
  • Store all string and yarn in a pet-proof sewing basket.
  • If you have a cat, don’t decorate your Christmas tree with tinsel.
  • On Christmas morning, clean up all wrapping paper, packaging, and toy pieces so your pet cannot eat them. 
  • Never give your pet bones as a treat.
  • Consider crate training.

If you think your pet may have ingested a foreign body, call your family veterinarian or contact us immediately. If your veterinarian has diagnosed a foreign body and referred your pet for surgical removal, AESC’s surgery department is available for emergency procedures 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays.