I Can’t Believe He Ate That!

Needle lodged within the intestinal tract © Cuyahoga Falls Veterinary Clinic
Dogs and cats eat some pretty darned crazy things! Sure, I can understand nabbing a loaf of bread from the kitchen counter or sneaking some “kitty roca” out of the litter box. But why on earth eat a sewing needle, panty hose, Lego pieces, or mama’s favorite diamond earrings? Just when I think I’ve seen it all, something new surprises me.

Dogs, more so than cats, tend to be “repeat offenders.” I recall one Labrador in particular who had six surgeries over the course of his lifetime to remove socks lodged within his intestinal tract (in spite of counseling his humans repeatedly on picking up their socks). As many surgeries as this dog had, we should have installed an abdominal zipper!

Not all cases of foreign body ingestion have such happy endings, particularly if the foreign object has perforated through the wall of the stomach or intestinal loop. This allows leakage of nonsterile gastrointestinal contents into the normally sterile abdominal cavity resulting in widespread inflammation known as peritonitis. With emergency surgery and post-operative intensive care, many of these patients survive, but it is certainly becomes a big deal, both for the patient and the pocketbook.

Esophageal foreign bodies are notoriously difficult to remove, particularly if they’ve been lodged for more than a day or two. (The esophagus is the muscular tube that transports food and liquids from the mouth down into the stomach.) Even if the foreign object is successfully removed, the resulting inflammation within the esophagus can result in the formation of a stricture (narrowing of the esophageal lumen) and chronic, severe swallowing difficulties.

Some dogs and cats are lucky. The foreign objects they eat pass freely without any ill effects. I see the not so lucky ones with objects that have become lodged within their gastrointestinal tracts. There are two means to retrieve a gastrointestinal foreign body, surgery and endoscopy. An endoscope is a long telescope device that can be passed through the oral cavity, down the esophagus and into the stomach and upper portion of the small intestine. The endoscope allows visualization of the inside lining of the bowel and its contents. A grabber type instrument can be deployed through a channel in the endoscope to grab the object and then pull it out through the mouth. Endoscopy requires general anesthesia, but it is often preferred over surgery because of its less invasive nature.

In order for endoscopy to be of benefit, the foreign body must be located within the esophagus, stomach, or the very upper part of the small intestine (this is as far as the endoscope can reach). Some objects (coins, needles, tennis ball fragments, cloth) are well suited to being removed endoscopically because they are more “grabbable.” Objects that have traveled further down the gastrointestinal tract (beyond reach of the endoscope) or are without “grabbable” surfaces (large rounded bones, balls) are better retrieved surgically.

What can you do to prevent your dog or cat from eating inappropriate things? First and foremost, “baby proof” your home and yard for your pet. Anything unsafe that your little snookums might want to “mouth” should be put away and out of reach. This is particularly important when caring for a puppy or kitten. Secondly, it pays to know your pet- some cats and dogs never grow out of the habit of putting strange things in their mouths. Some adult cats continue to graze on dental floss found in the bathroom garbage pail, and some adult dogs continue to scarf down panty hose and underwear. If you provide chew toys or bones to your dog, supervise carefully to be sure that he’s a nibbler rather than a “swallow it whole” kind of guy. The best defense against gastrointestinal foreign bodies is avoidance of the things your pet might be willing to swallow. In some extreme cases, I’ve encouraged folks to muzzle their dogs when outdoors unsupervised or on walks, so they can relax knowing that their dog cannot gobble something down in the blink of an eye.

Perhaps my most memorable foreign body retrieval was performed on an adult Saint Bernard. X-rays suggested something was lodged in her stomach, but I couldn’t be clear exactly what the foreign material was. I passed my endoscope down into the stomach and saw an intact hand. I thought, “Oh my goodness!” I looked around a bit more and spotted a foot, and then what looked like some human hair. My heart was racing until I finally removed what I could identify as the chewed up remains of a troll doll! Afterwards I chuckled remembering that the view I get through the endoscope is magnified significantly!

What crazy thing has your dog or cat eaten in the past? Did it pass on its own or was it necessary for your vet to come to the rescue?

Happy holidays to you and your loved ones,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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14 Comments on “I Can’t Believe He Ate That!

  1. One of our rescue dogs recently had surgery and lost about a foot of her intestine after eating an entire bed sheet! Her foster mom had lined her crate with it after noticing the blanket she formerly used was being nibbled. Now her crate has to be totally unlined. She is doing better and has started to eat and eliminate again, but it is still touch and go. Very tough on the dog and on us, not to mention on the treasury!

  2. Working as a Licensed Veterinary Technician, I have found many unique foreign bodies like you. I’ve seen rocks, needle/thread, half of a tennis ball, dog toys, socks, venetian blind cords, and more. The most perplexing for the vet both to diagnose and remove was a turkey vertabrae that a poodle mix approx 12# had swallowed when she raided the garbage can and feasted on Thanksgiving scraps. The vertabrae was so large that it had lodged in the thoracic part of her esophagus, and it couldn’t pass through the diaphragm into the stomach. We tried and tried and tried to use an endoscope to grab the bone, but it was so wedged that we needed to go into the chest surgically to remove it. The sweet dog had a tough recovery, as you can imagine, but she lived for a long time after that!

  3. My sheltie used to be a bathroom trash digger until we moved the can into a cabinet. His favorite snack? Used make-up remover cloths and Oil of Olay cleansing pads. He would eat as many as he could find and then throw them all up later that day. We found out later that xylitol is in an ingredient in both products (luckily in very small amounts) but I wonder if that sweet smell is what attracted him to them in the first place. The last time it happened I was at my in-laws and he found an unopened box of the cleansing pads sitting on the edge of my MiL’s tub and got the box opened and ate them all.

  4. We had a Cairn terrier who grabbed a bit of Thanksgiving turkey which fell on the kitchen floor. Unfortunately, it was the part that had the pop up thermometer embedded. Down it went, sharp point and all. We rushed her to a vet emergency hospital. The vet put a few drops of something in her eye and she immediately vomited. Out it came. The vet asked if he could keep it for his collection.
    He told us a good home remedy for a situation like that is to get a teaspoon full of hydrogen peroxide down the animal’s throat. Apparently the effervescence of the peroxide will make the animal vomit.

  5. When my mini poodle was about 8 months old, he ate some pieces of a broken light bulb. I didn’t see him eat the glass but found it in his poop. He was one of those dogs who would eat poop (not his own but the fresh poop from my bichon). So I had to make sure I picked up the poop as soon as possible. I took them both for a walk and as I was picking up his poop, I see several pieces of glass in his poop. I remembered that a couple a days earlier I broke a light bulb. Took him to the vet but they did not recommend anything except watch him.

  6. We have 2 Boston Terriers, Maisie and Gus, who are brother and sister. Both are chewers and eaters of “things”. Maisie just loves to dash upstairs to look for Q-tips. She is obsessed! Needless to say we have covered basket trash cans now in the bathrooms!

  7. I work at a vet clinic. One of the more memorable Christmas time surgeries we had involved a string of lights. The goofy Lab ate them right off the tree…………..he survived and went on to eat a floaty thing from the owner’s pool the next summer.

  8. Thank you for this!

    I have a dog with an esophageal stricture. Instead of having dilation surgery, my vet and I have decided to maintain him on medications (metaclopramide, cisapride and prilosec) and a thinner than normal diet – I use the Honest Kitchen with extra water mixed in (it is high calorie and easy for me to prepare). He is happy, healthy and a correct weight.

    He also eats with his bowl extremely elevated (he stands with his front feet on a stool and the bowl is on the next step up), so that gravity can also help the food move past the stricture.

    He has been taught the cue “chew it” so that he can eat harder treats and not have them lodge. He has been taught the cue “leave it” since he is a poop eater (this caused the whole problem int he first place).

    Robbie’s stricture is 6 mm right before his stomach. With time and medication, he can now pass, without pain, soft items twice that size or bigger. But, he will sometimes get something caught and that is painful to watch until he brings it up. Thankfully, my routine with him and my other dogs has changed, so he has few opportunities to eat items that are too large.

    There are so few dogs that have strictures or have survived with a stricture that figuring out what is going out is tough. But, after a frustrating few months, he is acting normally and eating well, so we must be doing something right1

  9. I’ve had one swallow a rock that was the size and shape of a squash ball. Surgery and complications followed, he lost a lot of his intestine, and has a problem with putting on condition. Another ate a whole tea towel. It was unnoticed until she threw up half. The other half went the other way! It had sat in her gut for so long, with no symptoms at all, that it tore in half and passed on it’s own!! She was a dog that would eat anything!! She also worked out how to destroy the latches on crates from the inside, and open almost any catch. She would open her run, and then everybody else’s!

  10. I actually lost a cat (really more of a kitten, since he was only a hair over a year old) because of his heretofore unknown nibbling habit. I used to have pillows on my couch with tassel-type strings around the edges. Apparently while I was gone at work, my kitty would chew them, which resulted in one of the strings wrapping itself around his intestine, eventually killing him. This was only figured out after several trips to the vet, x-rays and other unsuccessful diagnostic tests. It was only with his necropsy that we discovered the true cause of his distress. Needless to say, those pillows were immediately thrown out, lest my other cat or dog chew on them, and I’ve been leery of any rope-type toys and pillows with tassels ever since.

  11. This didn’t happen with one of my dogs – but a neighbor had just gotten a puppy a few months before – an English Terrier. She frantically knocked on the door because the pup had gotten into her oil paints and her husband was gone with their car. My mom and I rushed her to the vet who induced vomiting. The dog started to retch in Technicolor but then started to throw up a pen, coins and other foreign bodies. We were amazed that he’d managed to digest so much when he tossed the Baby Jesus from a nativity scene (it was the holidays). My neighbor exclaimed “I wondered where that had gone!” We all burst out laughing,

  12. I have been very lucky with my Labradors, as pups and young dogs they will eat anything and everything that is not nailed down, no scratch that they will eat things nailed down as well if they have the chance but none have ever needed surgery. Socks, chewed up tennis balls, more socks, (husbands shoes, never mine), and assorted children’s toys have all been eaten. We have had numerous trips to the vet with x-rays, with vomiting induced and more x-rays and more waiting but things have always safely passed. All under the watchful eye of our Vet.

    One of my Labs ate a $100 bill. I came home with 7- $100 bills and put them on the kitchen table for my husband. A few hrs later he asked if I had counted the money because there was only $600.. The money has been scattered on the table and he found two bills on the floor. We looked but could not find the other bill so we assumed one of the Labs had eaten it.. We confined them all to the yard and sure enough we found the $100 dollar bill in 6 pieces 36 hrs later. Hosed it off, used some disinfectant, dried it, taped it together, put in in a plastic bag and the teller at the bank laughed so hard I thought she was going to pass out..

  13. When I was growing up we had a lab mix that would swallow rocks. Some passed without a problem and others had to be removed.
    And then there was the nightmare 6 or so years ago of my cat and the thread. She had surgery.

  14. There are also training alternatives.. Teaching a sock-eating dog to retrieve the socks to the owner (in exchange for a VERY tasty reward) cleans up the socks and gives the dog something to do other than swallow!
    My own dog tended to eat EVERYTHING (food or not) as a youngster. He shredded off a portion of his crate bedding (a single sheet folded up) and it got stuck in his pylorus. Many dollars and weeks of recovery later, he’s fine. He will still eat things that he shreds up, but doesn’t shred stuff as often.
    A client’s dog recently swallowed his entire head collar. Whoops!