When Your Pet Swallows a Foreign Object
It’s extremely common for pets to ingest foreign objects. Maybe your dog got its paws on a barbecue skewer or your cat nibbled on Christmas tree tinsel – the severity, symptoms, and outcomes vary from case to case. Most inedible items will get stuck in an animal’s gastrointestinal tract, and these foreign bodies can be life threatening. Often, the sooner an animal owner seeks veterinary care, the better the outcome will be for the animal.
How bad is it?
While some small foreign bodies might naturally pass on their own, many will become lodged within the gastrointestinal tract, causing discomfort and possibly fatal consequences. These questions help identify the severity of the ingestion.
- How long has the foreign object been stuck inside? With greater time comes higher risk that the foreign body may travel further down the digestive tract or the object may sit in the stomach causing irritation. With increased duration of obstruction, compromise to sections of the gastrointestinal tract may be more severe, putting your pet at risk for more significant complications.
- Where is the foreign object located? Some foreign bodies located in the esophagus or stomach may be retrieved via an endoscopic procedure (a scope is inserted through the animal’s mouth to identify and pull out foreign matter from the esophagus or stomach), which is less invasive than surgery. However, some foreign bodies in the stomach, and particularly those within the small intestine, will require surgical intervention.
- How much blockage is the object causing? Due to compression or obstruction that hinders blood flow or bodily processes, foreign bodies can damage the gastrointestinal tract.
- What is the material of the object? Some ingested items can be extremely toxic to animals. These objects include older pennies, zinc, or lead material, in addition to others.
When should a veterinarian examine the animal?
If you observe your cat or dog swallow an indigestible item, you should immediately consult with a primary care veterinarian. If the primary care office is closed, take your pet to an emergency veterinary hospital, which are typically open 24/7. Report any of the following symptoms of distress:
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of thirst/dehydration
- Diarrhea (with or without the presence of blood)
- Part of the object wrapped around the tongue or coming out of the rectal area
If you did not personally observe your pet swallow a foreign body, the primary care veterinarian will likely recommend a blood test and urinalysis to consider other causes for your pet’s symptoms. X-rays, both abdominal and thoracic (chest), may be required to view the ingested object.
If these routine X-rays fail to show the cause of your animal’s symptoms, a positive contrast radiograph (using barium to highlight the inside of the stomach and intestines) may be required. Abdominal ultrasound can also be very helpful in identifying foreign bodies.
Surgical intervention is not automatically required with gastrointestinal foreign bodies. Occasionally, the item ingested is small and smooth enough to pass through the gastrointestinal tract without causing damage or becoming lodged.
If the object becomes stuck in the upper gastrointestinal tract (mouth, esophagus, and stomach), it may be removed with the use of a flexible endoscope. However, when watchful waiting or the endoscopic procedure are not effective, surgery is probably necessary.
When Surgery is Required
Surgical procedures may sound ominous to an animal owner, but under the care of a board-certified veterinary surgeon, the animal will be in good hands. Board-certified veterinary surgeons are qualified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) and the ACVS designation is earned only after numerous credentials are met, including training, examinations and residency programs. A specialist with the ACVS credential can evaluate an animal in distress and provide the animal’s owner with a comprehensive understanding of the surgical options and recovery expectations.
Most gastrointestinal foreign bodies become lodged within the stomach or intestines, giving reason for a board-certified veterinary surgeon to schedule a gastrostomy (opening of the stomach) or enterotomy (opening the intestine). If the lodged object has caused a section of the bowel to be irreversibly damaged, a surgical procedure to remove a segment of the intestines and reattach the healthy ends is required.
When an object is lodged in the esophagus and cannot be retrieved via endoscopy, thoracic surgery by a board-certified veterinary surgeon is required.
What to Expect After Surgery
After surgery, your animal will be closely monitored by the surgical team and veterinary technicians at the specialty hospital to ensure a return to normal eating and bowel habits. Your primary care veterinarian will be kept informed and can help you plan for your pet’s recovery at home. Intravenous fluids and antibiotics may be given. Most pets recover very well following surgery and your board-certified surgeon and primary care veterinarian will work together to achieve an optimal outcome.
For additional information on this topic, visit the ACVS website.
If your animal has ingested a foreign object and you need to locate a board-certified veterinary surgeon, use the VetSpecialists.com search tool on the website’s homepage. The tool allows you to search for a veterinary surgeon, then select large animal or small animal, along with location by zip code or city name. Contact the hospital of your choice to discuss your animal’s symptoms and to review whether there is a need for a referral from your primary care veterinarian.