Dogs and cats are playful, inquisitive creatures who mostly investigate their world with their mouths. Some pets swallow non-food items while playing, because they smell like a tasty treat, or for no good reason at all. However, when these items become lodged in the stomach or intestines, they can cause serious, possibly life-threatening illness. The Neighborhood Veterinary Centers Richmond team shares everything pet owners need to know about gastrointestinal (GI) foreign bodies. 

Which pets are at risk for a gastrointestinal foreign body?

The classic foreign body obstruction patient is a young to middle-aged cat or large-breed dog, but all pets are potentially at risk. Your pet’s behavior and personality greatly influence whether they will swallow a dangerous object. Common examples in dogs include getting into the trash, swallowing a toy or piece of a toy, swallowing socks or underwear, tearing up and swallowing pieces of bedding, biting off large bone or chew pieces, or eating sticks, rocks, or mulch outside. Cats are more drawn to rubber bands, hair ties, ribbons, yarn, and threadsometimes with needles still attached. 

What are gastrointestinal foreign body signs in pets?

Signs depend on how long the obstruction has been present and whether the obstruction is partial or complete, as well as size, shape, and texture. If the item has damaged the intestines, toxins and bacteria can leak into the blood, and the pet will be sick, but others likely will appear mostly normal. Persistent vomiting occurs frequently, sometimes with these additional signs:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Poor appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

How do veterinarians diagnose gastrointestinal foreign bodies?

Your veterinarian may suspect a foreign body based on your pet’s clinical signs and physical examination. In cats, your veterinarian may see the end of a linear foreign body wrapped around the tongue or poking from the rectum. An important notenever pull on these items in an attempt to free them, because this can cause severe internal damage. 

Abdominal imaging, including plain X-rays, barium swallow X-ray studies, or ultrasound, can usually show foreign body presence because the item itself can be seen, or gas or fluid have built up in the intestines. If imaging is inconclusive but obstruction is likely, our veterinary team may recommend repeating the tests in a few hours, or performing exploratory surgery to look for the foreign body. Blood and urine tests may be ordered to rule out other conditions, check for infection signs, and prepare for anesthesia.

How do veterinarians treat gastrointestinal foreign bodies?

Treatment depends on the foreign body size and severity and obstruction location. The veterinary team may recommend one or more of the following:

  • Vomit induction to expel a small foreign body from the stomach
  • Hospitalization with close monitoring and repeated imaging tests
  • Endoscopy to remove a foreign body without surgery
  • A high-fiber diet to push a small foreign body through the colon
  • Surgery to find and remove items from the intestines

What is the prognosis for pets with gastrointestinal foreign bodies?

When foreign bodies and obstructions are addressed in a timely manner, most pets have a good outcome. Pets with intestinal perforations or dead intestinal sections can develop infection inside their abdominal cavity or throughout their body, which increases risk of postoperative complications or death. Occasionally, a sharp foreign body (e.g., a needle) can migrate from the GI tract to other body tissues, which increases the chance of infections or other complications. The sooner pets are treated for a foreign body, the better the outcome.

What should I do if my pet swallows an object or shows gastrointestinal foreign body signs?

If you see your pet swallowing a foreign object, suspect they swallowed something, or notice signs compatible with a foreign body obstruction, seek veterinary care right away. An examination and X-ray can usually confirm or deny your suspicions, and the sooner a foreign body is detected the better. Objects in the stomach are generally much easier to retrieve than those already in the intestines, and if surgery is required, an object is easier to retrieve from the stomach than the intestines. 

The veterinary team at Neighborhood Veterinary Centers Richmond is well-equipped to handle pets with GI foreign bodies and other GI upsets. Contact us if your pet is vomiting or acting abnormally, or if they swallowed a foreign or large object. If your pet is in trouble after hours, contact us on the emergency triage phone line for immediate advice and referral to a nearby emergency facility, if necessary.