Visiting Vet: Foreign bodies

What happens when Hoover eats something he shouldn’t?

It's not uncommon for dogs to swallow foreign objects, but they should be immediately brought to a vet if it happens. — Rafael Forseck

Socks, corncobs, bones, balls, toy soldiers, Play-Doh, Gorilla Glue, needle and thread, ribbon, rubber bands, hair ties, Nylabone chunks, tampons, coins, underwear, rocks, Popsicle sticks, batteries, magnets, fish hooks, peach pits, pacifiers, entire stuffed animals, pieces of broken glass or Christmas ornaments, safety razors, a foot-long strip of car seat upholstery: These are just a few examples of things veterinarians have removed from the stomachs or intestines of dogs and cats. I have personally seen almost all of these over my years of practice.

Some I can understand. Corncobs and bones taste good. One could forgive Hoover the hound for thinking these are meant to be eaten. A Popsicle stick? Well, it is food-adjacent. In any case, it’s a stick, and dogs like to chew sticks. Some of these things Hoover probably swallowed by mistake — the rock, the ball. “Look, Mom! I can put this big rock in my mouth … oh, oops.” Now it’s a big rock in his tummy. Play-Doh? The homemade version can be both tasty and toxic due to the high levels of salt. The commercial kind also apparently smells yummy to some dogs. Either kind can cause an obstruction if Hoover eats enough, especially if it has dried into a hard mass. Why do dogs eat other odd things like coins, batteries, magnets, or razors? I have no idea … and I decline to comment on the underwear.

Linear foreign bodies, such as rubber bands, ribbons, and hair ties, seem to be more of a cat thing. I suspect the size and shape sets off their predatory instincts. Is it a snake? A bug? A mouse? Look how it wiggles when you grab it! It’s definitely small enough to kill. On the other hand, you know those videos on social media of cats leaping dramatically when they unexpectedly encounter a cucumber or zucchini? Folks think this is funny. Cats do not. Their instincts tell them that zucchini might be something seriously dangerous. Taken by surprise, the cats are genuinely scared. But I digress. Hair ties, apparently, are far less threatening to cats than cucumbers. Some cats (and dogs) have ingested dozens of them, causing life-threatening gastrointestinal obstructions.

If you actually witness your pet eating the inedible, what should you do? The first question is whether or not to induce emesis. In other words, Should we try to make Hoover barf? That depends on what he ate. Anything with sharp edges might tear the esophagus during vomiting, or get lodged halfway on its way up. This can make things worse. In some cases, if G.I. Joe is still in Hoover’s stomach, quick referral to a specialist with the proper equipment can allow the soldier to be retrieved by endoscope. But in many cases, when there is a reasonable chance the object may be able to pass naturally without doing serious harm, a wait-and-see option is acceptable. Feeding bulky foods followed by lubricants can help cushion the objects and push them along. I generally recommend squishy white bread and canned asparagus for fiber, followed by a feline hairball petroleum laxative like Laxatone.

What about those cases where we don’t know for sure if the pet in question has a gastrointestinal foreign body (GFB)? It’s not always easy to make the diagnosis. Many GFBs are not radiopaque, which means you can’t see them on an X-ray. Rocks and bones, yes. Socks and Barbie dolls, no. What we look for then is what we call an “obstructive pattern” on the films. Linear GFBs like string can be the hardest to diagnose. In those cases we look for an accordion-like intestinal pattern called plication. Other diagnostic options include barium studies, ultrasound, and exploratory surgery.

In the past month, I have had two of my patients end up at Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists for surgical removal of gastrointestinal foreign bodies. The key to successful treatment is early identification and early intervention. Always check with your veterinarian if you see Hoover eat something he shouldn’t. They will help you decide which of three paths to take. Path No. 1 is inducing vomiting. Path No. 2 is seeing if the object will pass naturally. Path No. 3 is going directly to removal by endoscopy or surgery, usually at a specialty emergency clinic off-Island.

Path No. 2 is both the easiest and the hardest. It must be reserved for cases where there is a reasonable option the GFB can pass. Feed Hover exactly as your veterinarian advises. Leash-walk him, and observe his bowel movements. As long as food is going in one end, staying down, and feces are coming out the other end, then you can continue conservative medical treatment until confirming the object has passed. I once saw a chihuahua who ate multiple toy soldiers. The owners declined surgery. The dog was being treated as an inpatient at a large veterinary hospital where I was working as a student. I still remember the technician running gleefully out of the ICU holding up a poopy little toy and shouting, “We have a lieutenant!”

That little dog was lucky. He managed to pass all the troops uneventfully. But if you are waiting for Hoover to pass that sock or rock or rubber ball, vigilance is essential. If vomiting persists despite treatment, if he won’t eat, or if he seems uncomfortable, all suggest that the object has gotten stuck. The longer you wait, the more damage occurs to the gastrointestinal tract, and the greater the risk of fatality.

Statistics show that survival rates for foreign body ingestion are very high if managed correctly. Both of my cases came back from Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists to make a full recovery. One had a sock removed. The other, a wad of chewed-up Barbie parts tangled in a piece of sock. Both families will be vigilant in the future. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A closed hamper for dirty socks. A toy box with a lid for those Barbies.