Foreign Body Surgery for Pets

Twenty-six golf balls. A wad of Gorilla Glue. Seventy-five coffee creamer cups. A toy dinosaur. Knives, needles and fishhooks. These are among the items dogs and cats have swallowed, as shown on X-rays submitted to an annual “They Ate What?” competition held by Veterinary Practice News. Add to that: steel wool soap pads, 23 pacifiers, rubber ducks, corncobs, hair bands (a feline favorite), a teddy bear and 2.6 pounds of rocks.

Dogs and cats obviously aren’t always discriminating about what they put down the hatch.

Unfortunately, many of those foreign bodies need to be removed surgically. So often, in fact, that of the priciest pet health conditions, intestinal foreign bodies and “stomach” foreign bodies rank among the most common, surpassed only by torn knee ligament or cartilage. In 2010, the average cost for these dietary indiscretions ranged from $1,500 to almost $2,000, according to Nationwide, a pet health insurance provider.

There’s a String Attached

Some pets (especially cats) like to eat string, yarn, cords, dental floss, tinsel and thread — which can become “linear foreign bodies” in veterinary speak, an especially problematic situation. When one end of the string loops around the tongue or lodges in the digestive tract, the peristaltic action of the intestines can pull on the other end of the string, causing the tissues to bunch up like an accordion. As the string tightens, it can slice through the intestines, an often-fatal complication.

That’s why, when you see a string hanging out of one end of your pet or the other, you should never, never, never pull on it. Instead, get your pet to your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Signs of a Foreign Body

The first hint that your pet may have ingested a foreign body is when something around your house goes missing — the shiny earrings on your bedside table, a sock or a pair of underwear left on the floor, the sewing needle you used last night.

While some small, soft objects may pass through the digestive tract without causing any harm, others may lead to a full or partial obstruction, so very little gets through. Pets with an obstruction will typically show signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, abdominal pain and lethargy.

Bones and other sharp objects can damage or perforate the digestive tract, leading to more severe signs. And other objects, such as coins and batteries, can be toxic and should be removed as soon as possible.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Sometimes, a foreign body can be diagnosed with just a physical exam. For instance, your veterinarian may be able to feel an object in your pet’s intestine by pressing gently on the abdomen.

In most cases, though, X-rays will be required. Since some objects (like clothing) may not appear on an X-ray, your pet may be given oral barium, which “lights up” on X-rays. With a series of X-rays, your veterinarian can determine if the barium is able to pass through the system or if something is obstructing the flow.

In other cases, your veterinarian may recommend an exploratory surgery if your pet’s signs are consistent with a foreign body and the X-rays are inconclusive. Typically, an abdominal surgery will enable the veterinarian to open the stomach and/or intestines to retrieve the cat toy or rawhide that’s causing the problem.

When objects are stuck in the esophagus or stomach, it may be possible to remove them via endoscopy. For this procedure, your pet is anesthetized and a flexible tube with a light and a camera is inserted into your dog’s throat or stomach. Using a basket or prongs on the end of the tube, your veterinarian may be able to grasp the object and remove it without a surgical procedure.

Better Safe Than Sorry

If diagnosed and treated early, most pets can recover from foreign body procedures uneventfully. But why risk your pet’s health, not to mention a $2,000 vet bill to retrieve a $3 cat toy? To help avoid the problem, always pick up objects that could be swallowed and put them out of the reach of curious pets.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.