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Foreign Body Obstruction in Pets

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Foreign materials such as sticks, bones, or garbage are common causes of irritation, vomiting, and diarrhea in dogs and cats.  These foreign bodies can also sometimes obstruct the intestine, leading to a serious, life-threatening emergency.


The digestive tract is essentially a long tube within the body that is surrounded by bands of smooth muscle.  These bands of muscle produce rhythmic waves of contraction known as peristalsis, which push food and other materials down the digestive tract, much like balls being pushed through a sock.  On rare occasions, ingested foreign material can get stuck as it is being pushed along.  If this obstruction is not relieved, the pressure at the site of obstruction can cut off the blood supply, so that part of the intestine dies.  Untreated, this condition is usually fatal.


Obstruction near the front part of the digestive tract causes severe vomiting, and the pet cannot keep anything down.  Obstruction farther down the tract may also cause straining to defecate, with little or no feces passed.  Obstruction anywhere in the tract usually causes severe abdominal pain, so that the abdomen is tense and rigid.


Obstruction can be caused by many different materials, including cloth, bones, toys, rawhides, sticks, and garbage.  Long pieces of fabric such as yarn, string, or nylon stockings are special problems that can lead to severe obstruction.  These linear foreign bodies can cause the bowel to fold upon itself, so that large sections of intestine “pleat up” and lose their blood supply.  This is especially a problem in cats, in which string or yarn looped around the base of the tongue becomes anchored there, while the other end pleats up the intestine.


Intestinal obstruction is an emergency that requires immediate veterinary attention!  Make sure to give your veterinarian a complete history, especially if your pet has eaten any foreign material.  Your vet will perform a physical examination and take x-rays to look for signs of obstruction.  Treatment consists of abdominal surgery to remove the obstructing material and to examine the full length of the intestine.  Sections of intestine that appear dead will need to be removed, with the healthy ends sewn together.


Pets recovering from surgery for an intestinal obstruction usually need to be hospitalized for several days.  Intravenous fluids are needed to keep the pet hydrated and to correct any metabolic imbalances.  Follow-up home care includes small feedings with a bland diet for several days while the digestive tract heals and gradually returns to normal.  Full recovery is good in uncomplicated cases, but the prognosis is more guarded if the intestinal tract has been severely damaged.

 

Q&A

What can cause an obstruction?

Obstruction can be caused by many different materials, including cloth, bones, toys, rawhides, sticks, and garbage.  Long pieces of fabric such as yarn, string, or nylon stockings are so-called “linear foreign bodies” that can cause the bowel to pleat up on itself.

Is this an emergency?

Yes, rush your pet to the veterinarian immediately if you suspect an obstruction.

How is an obstruction diagnosed?

Make sure to give your veterinarian a complete history, especially if your pet has eaten any foreign material.  Your vet will perform a physical examination and take x-rays to look for signs of obstruction.

Hw is an obstruction treated?

Treatment consists of abdominal surgery to remove the obstructing material and to examine the full length of the intestine.  Sections of intestine that appear dead will need to be removed, with the healthy ends sewn together.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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