Foreign bodies in dogs are a common problem encountered quite frequently in veterinary hospitals. Foreign bodies by definition entail objects or pieces of extraneous matter that enter the body. In particular, foreign bodies in a dog's GI tract entail things dogs ingest and that become particularly problematic when they happen to lodge somewhere along the dog's digestive tract. Ingestion of foreign bodies in dogs is therefore something that warrants attention. Veterinarian Dr. Eric Weiner discusses the ingestion of foreign bodies in dogs and the onset of problematic blockages.
Ingestion of Foreign Bodies in Dogs
Dogs eat weird stuff. Fact. I’ve seen dogs eat socks, underwear, carpet, bones, feminine hygiene products, you name it. Sometimes they are lucky enough to pass it (or throw it up before it ever becomes a problem), but other times it becomes lodged somewhere within the gastrointestinal tract and becomes a major problem.
When a foreign object is ingested, it could potentially get stuck anywhere from within the mouth, esophagus, stomach, or small intestine.
Bones or sticks stuck within the mouth usually lead to excessive pawing at the face, drooling, panicking (the dog, not the owner…well, sometimes both), and trouble eating.
Diagnosis is usually easy as you can usually see the problem. Removal of the object can sometimes be challenging and may require anesthesia. Once it is removed, the patient is treated with supportive care, and they usually do just fine.
When an object gets stuck within the stomach or intestine, the most common clinical signs exhibited are lethargy, decreased appetite, and vomiting. Abdominal discomfort and arching of the back may also be seen. These are caused by a physical blockage preventing the normal movement of food and water to get through for normal digestion and absorption of nutrients.
This leads to a build up of fluid, including electrolytes, within the gut up to the blockage. When dogs start vomiting excessively, they become very dehydrated, and the electrolytes and acid-base status becomes unbalanced. This causes an environment in which normal cell activities cannot function, leading to a very sick patient.
If the blockage is not relieved in a timely manner, not only can the dehydration lead to shock, but the area of affected gut can lose its blood supply, making the tissues weaker. If the gut perforates, or breaks due to disease, the gastrointestinal fluids, full of acid, bacteria, and lots of other nasty stuff pour into the abdominal cavity, causing a septic peritonitis and a very big problem. Some objects, like sticks or bone fragments, can actually pop a hole through even healthy gut, causing similar issues.
What Happens at the Vet's Office
Clinically some dogs come into the hospital as happy as can be, despite vomiting eight times prior to the visit. The physical exam initially may be completely normal, perhaps with only mild dehydration detected.
In these cases, especially if the naughty pet was sneaky and ate something without the owner knowing, treating the symptoms with anti-nausea meds, fluids, and a bland diet is appropriate.
If clinical signs persist, or if they present looking sicker, or with a known history of eating a foreign object, abdominal x-rays +/-abdominal ultrasound are recommended, along with blood work to evaluate the level of systemic disease.
The tricky part is that not all objects appear on x-rays. The easy ones to spot are bone and metal. Things like cloth (clothes, toys, etc.) or plastic do not always show up very well. The veterinarian is looking for other clues, such as dilated bowel segments, or abnormal bunching.
If the object has already made its way to the colon, the good news is most of the time, it will finish the journey all the way through. It is incredible what things will pass. A peach pit may not cause a problem in a large dog, but can get stuck in a Yorkie because the diameter of their intestine is smaller.
However big dogs still can get obstructed easily. Some cases get by with fluids and bulk cathartics to push the material all the way through. A wait-and-see approach is only appropriate for so long until surgical intervention is required.
If there is known ingestion and/or there is enough evidence seen on physical exam and diagnostics, surgery is usually recommended. As alluded to before, these are very time sensitive situations as waiting too long can make the problem much worse.
Advanced disease leads to higher anesthetic risk in a more unstable patient, and a surgery with a much higher complication rate. The longer tissue goes without a blood supply, the more likely segments of gut will need to be removed, not only significantly adding to risk, but cost as well.
The recovery period depends on the amount of damage created by the obstruction and the previous health of the pet. In a previously normal dog, they usually start feeling better within a day or so after the surgery. Most cases go home the next day, especially if they are eating. Some require extended care, especially if complications arose.
Surgeons are trained on methods to mitigate such complications as much as possible, but there is always a risk of infection or surgical dehiscence (re-opening of a surgically closed site, such as the hole made within the gut to remove the object). Again, risk increases drastically if the blockage is not relieved in a timely manner.
The Bottom Line
Prevention is often easier said than done, especially for those frequent offenders. Keeping things like garbage, socks and underwear out of reach help. That's right parents, you can tell your kids to pick up their clothes off the floor because your veterinarian said so.
Choosing toys that are less likely to break apart into big chunks is also helpful. Some of the most common offending toys include bones and rope toys. Hard rubber toys that are very difficult for dogs to rip apart make for good chew toys. Lastly, keeping dogs away from areas with acorns and alike, whether it's with a fence or just walking him or her on a leash and controlling where they go, can help prevent a big problem.
About the Author
Dr. Eric Weiner is a small animal veterinarian practicing in Orlando, Florida. He is a third generation veterinarian as both his father and grandfather are vets. Although he grew up following both of them around and wanted to be a veterinarian himself, he took a bit of a detour and attended Hofstra University originally as a music major.
Eventually realizing his true passion still lays within Veterinary Medicine, he switch majors and graduated in 2010 with a BA in biology and dual minors in biochemistry and music.
Dr. Weiner attended Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and graduated in 2015, concentrating in mixed animal medicine and surgery. During his clinical year, his favorite rotation was which ever he was currently on. He especially enjoyed spending time at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, where he worked closely with search and rescue dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and even cancer detection dogs.
When Dr. Weiner is not working with animals, he enjoys riding his motorcycle and playing baseball. He is married to his high school sweetheart and they are enjoying their brand new baby girl. In addition, they live with their therapy dog Murphy, and two cats, Stella and Luna.