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Foreign Object Removal in Pets: Cautions, Procedures, and Recovery

Some pets, especially cats and dogs, have curious eating habits that often cause them to ingest foreign objects. While pets can eat some foreign objects without injury, others may be toxic, cause gastrointestinal upset, or lead to a life-threatening intestinal obstruction, which usually lands them in the vet emergency room. This article will serve as a guide to foreign object ingestion, ranging from common symptoms, causes of intestinal obstruction, and how your vet may remove the object.

What happens when a pet ingests a foreign object?

When a cat or dog ingests a foreign object, the resulting complications may vary from mild gastrointestinal upset (vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite) to severe internal injuries or a blockage of the digestive system. Severity depends on the size and type of the object, how long ago it was ingested, and the size and health of your pet. Larger objects can become lodged in the intestines, preventing food from passing through. Consequently, the peristaltic action (wave-like contractions) that the gut muscle wall produces can press the foreign object along the gastrointestinal tract and cause further complications, including decreased blood flow and tissue death.

In extreme circumstances, the intestinal wall may break, allowing bacteria and food particles into the abdomen. This results in extreme pain, peritonitis, shock, or even death. If a string or other linear foreign body is ingested and travels through the digestive system, it can cause the intestines to bunch up, and so, cause the string to tear through the intestines. Foreign objects like tampons or diapers can expand in the intestines, causing some obstructions. Other common causes of obstruction include corn cobs, toys, and socks/underwear. Small metal objects like coins and batteries may not cause obstruction but can damage the intestines.

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Signs that your pet has ingested a foreign object

X ray foreign objects

Common symptoms of an intestinal obstruction include:

  • Vomiting
  • Constant gag reflex, swallowing, or coughing
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Abdominal pain (downward dog or praying position)
  • A bloated stomach
  • Whining or crying
  • Lethargy or fatigue

You should seek veterinarian assistance if your pet shows any of these symptoms. While there are many possible causes for these clinical signs, it could be that a foreign object is obstructing your pet's digestive tract, especially if you noticed your pet eating something they shouldn't.

How is foreign object ingestion diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will obtain a medical history and perform a physical exam to diagnose foreign object ingestion. If a foreign body is suspected they will generally start by taking x-rays of the abdomen. Further testing, such as a barium study, ultrasound, blood, and urine tests may also be recommended, to help determine the extent of the obstruction's impact on the pet’s health or to rule out other possible causes of vomiting, such as pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, infections, or hormonal disorders like Addison's disease.

Procedures for removing foreign objects in pets

The treatment for foreign body ingestion can vary greatly depending on the situation, primarily what your pet has eaten, when it was consumed, the location of the foreign object, and your pet’s size and health. If your pet ingests something they shouldn’t or you notice symptoms of an obstruction, contact your vet immediately. Never attempt to remove a linear foreign body that you find around the base of your pet's tongue or protruding from the anus; doing so may result in the object causing further damage or cutting through the intestines. Possible veterinary treatments may include:

Monitoring

If your vet suspects that a foreign object will pass through the digestive tract without causing an issue, they may recommend that you wait and monitor for signs of obstruction. They may suggest that you feed bread or other bulky, high-fiber snacks to help coat and expel the object. You should also monitor your pet’s poop for the foreign material over the next few days. In most cases, it takes between 10-24 hours for something to pass through the digestive tract. X-rays can be taken to monitor for changes.

Induction of vomiting

If it has only been 1-2 hours since your pet ingested a foreign object, your vet may be able to make them vomit it up. Once more time has passed and the object has moved into the intestines, this will no longer be effective. This is also not recommended if your pet has eaten something that is sharp or caustic, which could damage the esophagus on the way back up. In rare cases, your vet may suggest using hydrogen peroxide to make your dog vomit at home, however, this should only be done under veterinary guidance and never used in cats due to risk of serious side effects.

Endoscopy

In some cases, endoscopy can be used to remove foreign objects in the esophagus or stomach. This is a minimally invasive procedure that involves inserting a small camera into the mouth and down the esophagus so the vet can see where the foreign object has lodged and remove it with endoscopic instruments. This procedure requires general anesthesia, but recovery time is usually shorter, and cost is less than surgery. However, not all vet clinics have endoscopy available. If the object has moved into the intestines or has already caused an obstruction and associated damage, then surgery will be needed.

Surgery

Surgery can be performed to remove a foreign body from the stomach (gastrotomy) or intestines (enterotomy). If there is an obstruction present, emergency surgery is required. General anesthesia is essential for such an invasive operation, so before the surgery, the animal will be anesthetized and the surgical site shaved and prepped. If the intestines have been significantly damaged then a resection and anastomosis (surgical removal of the damaged portion and joining of healthy sections) will be required. The prognosis depends on the site of the surgery and the extent of the damage, but many pets go on to do well after this treatment.

How to care for a pet post-surgery

Under normal conditions, your pet may need several days in the hospital to ensure total recovery. Pets that have ingested foreign items and developed secondary diseases may need some extra hospital stays for additional care, such as intravenous fluids, antibiotics, pain relief, and intensive monitoring.

Once home, the recovery period is approximately two weeks. It is critical to closely observe your pet for complications such as bleeding at the incision site, fever, vomiting, pain, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Possible complications include dehiscence (coming apart) of the incision resulting in peritonitis. An E-collar (cone) can help prevent licking or chewing at the incision site. It’s important to follow your vet’s recommendations regarding diet, medications, exercise restriction, and follow-up visits.

How to prevent pets from swallowing foreign objects

There are some precautions you can take to prevent your pets from swallowing foreign objects. Here are some tips to follow:

  1. Cover your trash can. If your pet gets into the trash, they risk ingesting harmful substances. To guard against this, always ensure your trash can is covered and stored out of sight.
  2. Close the laundry room door. Pets tend to play with anything, including dirty laundry. Limit your pet’s access to the laundry room by always keeping it locked, if possible.
  3. Throw out chewed toys. Getting rid of toys when they show signs of wear and tear will prevent your pets from ingesting little fragments of plastic or fabric. Also, keep an eye on your dog when they are chewing on a bone; it may be harmful if the bones are too tiny or pointed.
  4. Keep small, ingestible items out of your pets' reach. Remember that your pet may consume any little things you put on your tables or surfaces. If you discover one lying about, gently store it in a drawer.
  5. Train the pets to adopt safety behaviors. If pets are repeat offenders consider, training them to wear a basket muzzle. It's also important to train a "drop it" and "leave it" command for dogs.

Cost of surgery to remove a foreign object from a dog or cat

The procedure for removing foreign objects from a pet can be pricey. It involves various medical examinations, essential tests like imaging (x-rays, ultrasound), bloodwork, and often surgery. Pet owners can expect a price of $2,000 to $7,000 for surgeries. Endoscopy cost anywhere between $800 and $2,000 on average.

Does pet insurance cover foreign object removal?

Pet insurance often covers costs for surgical procedures to remove foreign objects from your pet; the coverage can be entirely or in part, provided there are no preexisting conditions. Because no two insurance plans are identical, you must carefully study your insurance policy to understand the specifics of your coverage, including any relevant deductibles, benefits, and payment terms.

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Final thoughts

Understanding the signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal foreign bodies in cats and dogs is critical for pet parents. We can safeguard our dogs' and cats' safety and well-being by knowing the causes, symptoms, and potential treatments when our pets ingest foreign objects. To prevent complications, it is always best to seek immediate veterinary care if you suspect your pet has ingested a foreign object, because the sooner you see your vet the better the outcome.

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