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How to Tell if Your Pet Has Ingested a Foreign Body

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If you know or strongly suspect your pet ingested a foreign body that is causing illness, this is considered an “ORANGE” – or urgent case – on our Fast Track Triage system. We recommend having your pet see your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital within the next 12 hours. Please call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you!

Note that a foreign body ingestion with no signs of illness is considered a “YELLOW” – or semi-urgent case – on our Fast Track Triage system. We recommend having your pet evaluated by your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital within 24 hours. Call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you, and if your pet begins to show signs of illness, call the team back to inform them of the status change.

  • If you know a foreign body was ingested, but you are not sure which pet ate it, seek veterinary care for both pets.  
  • If you know or strongly suspect your pet ate a foreign body, do not wait for symptoms to appear. Contact a veterinary care team right away to see how soon you can bring your pet in.  

Dogs and cats are notoriously curious creatures, which can sometimes lead them into trouble. Many times, this curiosity leads them to eat items not intended for ingestion! Socks, underwear, wrappers, rubber bands, yarn, corn cobs, toys – you name it, there’s probably a pet who has eaten it! In the animal ER, we call these items “foreign bodies,” and while sometimes they will pass through a pet’s GI tract with no problem, they can also be a true emergency that requires immediate surgery. So whether your pet is new to this rebellious lifestyle or is a repeat offender, here’s what pet parents need to know about foreign body ingestions!

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Initial Signs at Home 

Sometimes, it’s very simple to know if your pet ate something they shouldn’t have because you saw them swallow it. Other times, you may have to do some detective work at the crime scene. Clues often include: 

  • Overturned garbage cans 
  • Scattered materials around the house (which were NOT where you left them)
  • A basket of laundry that has been dug through
  • Open cabinets or drawers
  • “Bits” of evidence left behind (such as stuffing from a toy, ripped wrappers or packaging, etc.)
  • Missing items (such as the sock that was just on the floor a moment ago) 

Symptoms in Your Pet 

If you didn’t witness your pet eating a foreign body and there’s no evidence around the house, you may instead notice your pet exhibiting the following symptoms: 

  • Lip licking 
  • Drooling 
  • Hiding 
  • Vomiting
  • Reduced appetite or no appetite
  • Abdominal pain (Groaning, restless, or vocalizes at touch)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • The “guilty” look 
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X-ray of dog who ate seven squeaker toys & had them surgically removed.

What happens if my pet does swallow a foreign body?

Whether or not the item may cause a problem depends on multiple factors such as the size of the item, the texture/composition of the item, and the size of your pet. When an item is swallowed, it needs to make its way down to the stomach and then into the small intestine. The small intestine is a long, thin tube that is approximately the width of a pen for a cat or small dog and the width of a Crayola marker for a large breed dog. Keep this information in mind: even small items such as almonds can cause an obstruction in cats (We’ve seen it multiple times!). The item then goes into the colon, which is a much shorter and wider tube. It then moves through the rectum and passes out of the body. 

In this digestion journey, the places that are most popular for foreign bodies to get stuck are at the sphincter where the stomach meets the small intestine (called the pylorus) or somewhere within the long, thin small intestine. Factors that determine if a foreign body will become obstructive include its size, bulk (like stuffing,) and firmness (a rock vs a soft toy).  

How do I know if my pet has an obstruction?  

Unfortunately, there is no easy at-home test to determine if your pet has an obstruction or not. Typically, the worse the symptoms and the longer the symptoms have been present, the more likely an obstruction – but this is not an absolute rule of thumb! The best way to determine an obstruction is to have a veterinary examination and imaging. Usually, x-rays are performed first, but sometimes ultrasound will be utilized. 

It’s important to know that most foreign objects are not easily seen on x-rays. X-rays are pictures made of various shades of grey – and many foreign material (like fabric, wrappers, and food) will show up as the same shade of grey as the stomach or intestines themselves. Items made of metal like coins, or items made of dense mineral, like rocks or bone are more visible as they show a very bright shade of grey/white. So, it may be very easy to see a foreign body – or it might be very tricky! Veterinarians will also use clues such as the size/fullness of the stomach and size of the intestines to evaluate for a possible obstruction.

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How is a foreign body treated? 

If a foreign body obstruction is suspected, treatment options include: 

  • Medical Management
    • Medical management means hydrating the pet, giving supportive care medications such as anti-nausea medications, withholding food, and rechecking x-rays or ultrasound to see if the object is passing. If it does pass, the veterinary team will continue to provide medical management. It the object is not moving, then we often recommend surgical removal. 
  • Induce Vomiting
    • Sometimes, vomiting can be induced to remove the object. However, this can only be done if the object was swallowed less than three hours prior and the object won’t damage the esophagus on the way up. Items that can be easily vomited include soft and flexible fabric items such as socks or bits of a blanket, objects that are very small in relation to the diameter of the pet’s esophagus, and smooth-edged objects. It makes the veterinary team incredibly happy when vomiting is successful! If vomiting is not successful though, then medical management or surgery is discussed.  
  • Endoscopic Removal 
    • Occasionally, the object can be removed non-invasively via endoscopic retrieval. An endoscope is a long, thin tube with a camera and a retrieval tool at the end. The tube is fed down the pet’s esophagus, then, the camera is used to view the foreign body and surroundings. Lastly, while the tool is manipulated to grab the item and pull it back up the esophagus and out of the mouth. However, if the object is large, very smooth and slippery, or has already moved into the stomach, it may not be possible to retrieve it via endoscopy. 
  • Emergency Surgery
    • In some cases, initial x-rays or ultrasound show a clear obstruction or object. In these cases, medical management may not be a viable option, and emergency surgery is recommended right away to remove the object. 

What if I know something was eaten, but I don’t know which pet did it? 

Whether the trash was rummaged through, yarn went missing, or a shredded toy was lying in the hallway, often pet parents know – or strongly suspect – that a pet ate something they shouldn’t have, but they aren’t sure which pet did it. In these situations, always bring all of the pets in! The veterinary care team can induce vomiting in all of the pets or do x-rays to determine the culprit. Sometimes, there is more than one guilty partyOften, our ER team finds that the “innocent” pet is often the culprit rather than the usual suspect.  

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While we hope you don’t find yourself in this situation, we do hope this information helps better prepare you for what to do if your pet does eat a foreign body. Remember, prevention is key! This means keeping items out of your pet’s reach, securing trash cans with lids and locks, shutting doors or using baby gates to restrict access, and never leaving pets unattended with an item that can be swallowed or easily ripped up/chewed offWe understand that pets can be sneaky and things happen, so always reach out to your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital to determine your pet’s status and find out how soon your pet can be seen! 

Melanie Neufeld, DVM, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

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