Visiting Vet: No picnic

Animals and corn cobs are not a good fit.

A Labradoodle found corn on the cob, but ingesting it can cause digestive problems. — Pixabay

Not long ago, some people called with an urgent question. I always start these emergency telephone conversations by getting basic information. Name. Phone number. Who’s your regular veterinarian? The family paused when I asked that question. “Well, we’re actually calling from their office,” they stammered. “Were they not able to see your dog?” I replied. It happens occasionally. Panicked owners bring ill or injured animals directly to a veterinary office without calling ahead to confirm whether a doctor is available to help. No matter how critical the situation, always call ahead. Especially during the summer. Especially during a pandemic. But these folks had called ahead. In fact, they had an appointment for their dog, who had swallowed an entire corn cob. They had just seen the veterinarian. But they didn’t like what the doctor had advised, so were calling for a second opinion.

Corn cobs. In my family we have a rule. Corn cobs go directly into the trashcan with the dog-proof lid. Not in the compost. Not left on the table on unattended dinner plates from which a naughty dog might grab an unsanctioned treat. Why? Because dogs think corn cobs are delicious, and sometimes swallow them whole, or in great big chunks. You might think that being vegetable matter, corn cobs would get broken down and digested, no problem. Wrong. They don’t. They sit there in the stomach. Sometimes for days or even weeks. If the pieces are small enough, they may manage to move out of the stomach into the intestines where, all too often, they get lodged partway down the gastrointestinal tract. Corn cobs are one of the causes of intestinal obstruction in dogs during barbecue season.

So what should you do if Ty, the terrier, eats a cob? The first question whenever an animal ingests something they shouldn’t is whether or not to induce vomiting. The answer depends on whether the ingested material has the potential to do more harm coming back up than it does trying to move down and out the other way. In the case of corn cobs, the decision depends on several factors. How big is Ty? How big was the piece of corn? Did he chew it up, or swallow it whole? If Ty is a male Tibetan mastiff, typically weighing 100 to 160 pounds, and he chewed up the cob, then, yes, it may be a good idea to make him vomit. If, on the other hand, Ty is a Tibetan terrier, typically weighing 20 to 25 pounds, probably not. 

What are the risks? After all, we frequently induce vomiting when dogs eat dangerous stuff like chocolate, raisins, or rat poison. What’s the deal with something as benign-seeming as a corn cob? Well, a corn cob is a big, solid object with a rough exterior. There is a significant risk that in an effort to bring it back up, the cob can get stuck partway, lodging in the esophagus — the tube that takes food from the mouth through the chest to the stomach. A foreign body stuck in the esophagus is immediately and constantly distressing to the animal. (In people, swallowing food that is too dry or not chewed well enough may lead to an esophageal food bolus. If this has ever happened to you, you know it is a very uncomfortable sensation.) Since the esophagus runs through the chest cavity, it is much harder to access surgically than the stomach or intestines, and esophageal damage can be very dangerous and difficult to treat. A corn cob in the stomach must be addressed promptly, but at least you have a little time to get your ducks in a row. A corn cob stuck in the esophagus needs more urgent intervention. 

There are no veterinary facilities on-Island that have the specialized equipment, such as a fiber-optic endoscope, to extract esophageal foreigh bodies, so should that happen, an emergency ferry ride to Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists would be your only option. Which is exactly what the folks calling from their veterinarian’s parking lot had been advised to do. Not that the cob was lodged in the esophagus. It wasn’t. But because it seemed likely the dog had swallowed the cob whole. There was no way that thing was going to come back up safely, or pass down, through, and out the other end. It needed to be removed, endoscopically or surgically. The sooner the better.

Radiographs or ultrasound may help your veterinarian get a better idea of the severity of the situation. In some cases, trying medical treatment first may be reasonable. I usually advise feeding slices of squishy, soft bread followed by a big tablespoon of a cat hairball lubricant like Laxatone. The goal is to encase the cob pieces in nice smooth bread balls, then grease up the whole mess to help slide it along, whether we are trying to move it up or down. But when taking a “wait and see” approach, it’s important to watch closely for cob in the stool. If at any point Ty exhibits loss of appetite, vomiting, malaise, or abdominal pain, he should be seen right away to rule out obstruction. There are cases reported in which corn cobs have remained in dogs’ stomachs for two or three weeks before finally being removed surgically. Don’t assume everything is OK until you definitely see that corn cob come out. 

I told the people on the phone I heartily agreed with their regular veterinarian. “Get on the ferry as soon as possible,” I said. “Don’t forget to call ahead to the specialists.” The people reluctantly agreed. They wanted to do what was best for their dog, but had been hoping I had a less inconvenient option.. Sorry. A little while later I got another phone call from a client in a tizzy. Her dog had just grabbed a big piece of watermelon rind, and swallowed it down. “Not to worry,” I said. “Watermelon rind should digest just fine. Be glad it wasn’t a corn cob.”