What to do when your pet ingests a foreign body

“Pica” is the term for the indiscriminate eating and swallowing of things—from toys and stones to dirt and even feces—by your dog or cat. There are numerous causes to this, ranging from behavioral, such as boredom, through to medical pathologies. This habit can also lead to very serious problems when ingesting an abnormal object, collectively known as “foreign bodies.”

At Animal Doctors International, we see many dogs and cats come to us with anorexia, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea and enlarged or painful abdomens. The first thing we need to rule out is whether the pet has a foreign body somewhere in their abdomen. From children’s toys to hairbands and metal, it’s sometimes surprising what our pets can eat! Recently, we have had to remove rubber balls in the stomach, mango pips in the intestine and bones stuck in the esophagus.

These foreign bodies can be lodged anywhere in the abdomen, most commonly in the stomach or the small intestines. These objects block the normal passage of food, cause ulcerations, pain and, in severe cases, perforation and peritonitis.

While our pets are usually excellent at handling small foreign objects that they pick up through scavenging, however, once it becomes a problem then swift intervention is needed to prevent more serious, and often fatal, consequences. In most cases, there is only one way to handle these objects—surgical removal. While this can seem a daunting prospect to owners, we find that early intervention leads to a positive outcome in over 99 percent of cases and the animal is back to normal within just a few days.

Suspect a Foreign Body?

If you’re ‘lucky’ enough to observe your pet swallowing something that it shouldn’t then the best action is to take them to the vet immediately, once we know what we are dealing with then any more serious complications can be pre-empted. If the time-period is less than four hours then we may even be able to remove the object without surgery

Most of the time the initial signs we see are vomiting and abdominal discomfort, although this is not always the case. In gold-standard veterinary medicine, all vomiting and painful dogs would undergo investigation to rule out the ‘ticking time bomb’ of a foreign body.

Diagnostic Procedures

The vet will perform a thorough physical examination, looking at heart and respiration rate, blood perfusion, areas of pain, the oral cavity and any other indicators. The next step is to determine the underlying causes of the symptoms that we see—the basic diagnostic work-up usually includes a full blood test, abdominal x-rays and ultrasound. With an x-ray we can see ‘dense’ foreign bodies and their location, but some foreign bodies are invisible on these images. Ultrasound helps on locating the foreign body and can find objects that aren’t visible on the x-rays while also providing ‘realtime’ information on the movement and health of the intestines and stomach. In some cases, we can be highly suspicious of a foreign object, but it’s just not visible, therefore, in these cases we carry out a ‘barium study’ where contrast can highlight and ‘stick’ to areas of interest while also showing us the normal function of the intestines.

Treatment Options

While treatment depends on the location and what kind of foreign body your pet has, exploratory laparotomy (surgically opening the abdomen then removing the foreign body) is the both the most common treatment and the most successful. After the surgery, your pet can usually go home the same day, with some oral medications and reduced activity, and then go on to a full recovery in a few days.

Sometimes we use treatment regimens that include laxatives and induced vomiting, these are limited to when we can define the type of object, the time period from ingestion and rule out a serious blockage. One particular example is a dog that swallowed a pair of earrings that were seen in the small intestine. Laxative helped and the earrings were excreted after two days.

Our dogs and cats are part of our family. They give us joy and happiness through their companionship and loyalty. As with any member of our family, ensuring that they are eating well and healthily and don’t have access to dangerous or ‘tempting’ objects will go a long way in maintaining the health of their digestive tract. One small action we can all do is to never feed cooked bones to our pets! The moment that there is an early sign of pica, or question over the final destination of a missing sock, – a trip to the veterinarian should always be a priority.

BIODr. Eugene has worked as a veterinarian around Southeast Asia for the last four years, from the Philippines and Thailand to Malaysia and now Vietnam. He is driven by a desire to provide the best care for his patients and has a wide range of experience in all aspects of veterinary medicine, and a special interest in surgery and intensive care. Dr. Eugene provides both first and second opinions on all manners of companion animal cases while also overseeing the provision of clinical care for Animal Doctors International in Ho Chi Minh City