Pets that swallow thread, floss, or yarn find strings attached


Yoyo is a six-year-old Egyptian mau. The word “mau” is actually ancient Egyptian for “cat.” In hieroglyphics, it was represented with three symbols: a milk jug shape indicating the sound “mi,” a quail indicating the sound “w” and finally, a cat, thus creating the equation “mi” plus “w” equals “miw” or “mau,” the sound the animal made.

Wild cats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, maybe as long ago as twelve thousand years when people were learning to cultivate and store grains. Cats helped control rodents and protect food stores. They were also used to hunt and retrieve small birds for their owners. The first known illustration of a kitty wearing a collar is in a four-thousand-year-old Egyptian tomb. Cats were revered in ancient Egypt. If someone killed a cat, either intentionally or accidentally, they could be sentenced to death. When a pet cat died, people would shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.

Today’s Egyptian maus are one of the few naturally-occurring spotted domestic cats. The modern mau can only be definitively traced back to the 1950s, when an exiled Russian princess reportedly admired the cat of the Egyptian ambassador to Italy and began breeding them, but contemporary maus are undoubtedly close relatives of those ancient kitties of the Fertile Crescent. With their distinctive appearance, intelligent personalities, and chirping, musical voices, they are as highly prized by people today as they were by the Pharaohs.

Yoyo is a handsome specimen in his prime, silver-coated with striking black markings. A strictly indoor cat, he was robust and healthy, that is until he started puking. “He ate yesterday,” his mom told me, “then vomited eight times. He hasn’t eaten since.”

I examined Yoyo. Good body condition, well-hydrated, alert. No fever. No abdominal pain. If Yoyo went outside, I would have assumed “bad mouse” disease or something similar. Outdoor cats are exposed to all kinds or things that cause gastrointestinal upset — parasites, bacteria, viruses, toxins. But Yoyo lived a sheltered life. “Have you fed anything unusual recently?” I asked.

His mom shook her head, then added, but he does go after things like string and dental floss.”

String. Thread. Floss. Yarn. In veterinary lingo they’re called “linear foreign bodies.” When ingested, they may pass through the digestive tract uneventfully — or get stuck, causing a world of woe. In veterinary school, they teach us to always check the mouth, as, on rare occasions, linear foreign bodies can get caught around a cat’s tongue, so I proceeded with an oral exam. Yoyo clearly had other ideas. “I can’t get a good look,” I said, grasping his head firmly and trying to restrain this squirming furball.

We tried holding him one way, then another, as he somersaulted across the table. I pushed at his tongue with a swab, but he writhed away with contortions worthy of Houdini. “Nothing abnormal, as far as I can see,” I sighed.

Since “acute nonspecific gastroenteritis” often passes quickly, I suggested 24 hours of symptomatic treatment. An injection to stop vomiting. Subcutaneous fluids for hydration. Hairball medication for good measure. “If he’s not better tomorrow, come back for X-rays,” I concluded.

Well, Yoyo wasn’t better in the morning. My assistant took the radiographs while I finished an appointment, then popped the film on the view screen. “Nothing obvious here,” I mused, going over to examine Yoyo again.

As I approached, he made an odd, retching yawn. “Is he doing that at home?” I asked. His mom nodded yes. Now I knew it was essential that I get a thorough look in that mau’s mouth.

Wiggly as ever, Yoyo twisted and turned, eluding my every effort to get a good gander. No matter how we held him, he wormed his head away. But then, fleetingly, I caught a glimpse of a linear red streak on one side way under his tongue before he jerked away again. Then Yoyo wiggled his tongue at me, flashing an identical red line on the other side. “I can’t see a foreign body, but something must be in there causing that irritation” I said.

For one final, concerted effort before resorting to anesthesia, I grabbed a magnifying headset and high intensity spotlight. Now, swaddle cat firmly in towel. Open mouth. Probe with swab. Aha! There it was! An almost invisible slender strand in the wound.

Later, with Yoyo happily anesthetized, I teased the thread from under his tongue. I had missed seeing it the first day but, thankfully, by day two, it was causing a noticeable red streak. Freeing one end, I could now see several more inches disappearing down his throat. Who knew how much he had swallowed? Or what might be attached to the other end? Nothing had shown on the X-ray, but lots of things don’t. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

I tugged gently on the strand. If it didn’t dislodge easily, pulling too hard could cause serious trauma, cutting the tissue like the string on a weed whacker cuts weeds. I applied gentle traction again. It wouldn’t budge. As I debated what to do next, Yoyo swallowed, and — poof — the fiber vanished. With one end no longer anchored under his tongue, he had swallowed it down. At least now everything was in his stomach.

If we were lucky, it would pass readily through his intestines and out the other end. If we were unlucky, it might not pass, and Yoyo would need surgery. There was also the possibility that he had already sustained significant gastrointestinal trauma that could result in a life-threatening infection.

Yoyo went home with antibiotics, pain-killers, and strict instructions about diet, nursing care, and observation. Within two days, he had bounced back to his old self. Purring, grooming, eating. Everyone was relieved, especially me. Already humbled that it had taken me an extra day to make the diagnosis, I was overjoyed that he was out of danger. No surgery, no mourning, no shaving of eyebrows. And hopefully, Yoyo will learn: no more strings.