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Dogs Eat the Darnedest Things: All About Intestinal Obstructions

If there’s one thing I know about dogs, it’s that they are equal-opportunity eaters. Whether it’s dinner or dish towels, rocks or rawhides, there’s likely a dog out there who will down it. We’ve all seen the X-rays: Dogs have swallowed rubber ducks, underwear, knives, light bulbs, baited hooks, skewers of meat (yes, skewer and all) — I could go on

 

and on. 

 

What’ll He Eat Next?

That doggone urge to chew and swallow pretty much anything in the hope that it might be tasty is the cause of many a visit to the veterinarian. Some foreign bodies — as they’re known in vetspeak — pass through the canine gastrointestinal tract unnoticed (unless you happen to spot them when they emerge). But when they get stuck, they can cause big problems.

 

Especially dangerous items include wooden skewers from corndogs or shish kabobs, which can perforate the stomach or intestinal wall, and linear objects such as string or thread. If you see string or thread dangling from your dog’s rear, never try to pull it out; you could damage his body tissues.


Small objects, in large enough quantities, are a problem, too. My colleague John Berg, DVM, a surgical specialist at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, recalls a dog who had swallowed about 1,500 decorative stones. They filled the dog’s stomach, part of the esophagus and the upper small intestine!

 

Signs of an Obstruction

Vomiting or regurgitation may be the first clues that your dog may have an obstruction. 


In case you didn’t know, vomiting and regurgitation are two different things. Vomiting involves abdominal heaving and may suggest that the stomach or small intestine is obstructed. Regurgitation, on the other hand, is when food comes right back up after the dog tries to swallow it. That’s usually what happens when a foreign body obstructs the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach).

 

Other signs of a potential obstruction include lack of appetite, diarrhea and that condition we veterinarians like to call ADR — “ain’t doin’ right.” We use that when an animal seems depressed, lethargic or out of sorts for no particular reason. Gagging, coughing and pawing at the mouth or neck can signal that something is stuck in the esophagus. If your dog has a habit of eating things he shouldn’t and shows any of these signs, it’s a good idea to take him to the veterinarian to check for an obstruction.


Depending on the physical exam, X-rays and the type of object most likely swallowed, your veterinarian may recommend a wait-and-see approach for a day or two, further diagnostic testing to gain more information or immediate surgery to remove whatever your dog has consumed.

 

Dogs at Risk

I think it’s safe to say that Labrador Retrievers take the cake when it comes to downing foreign objects. Bernese Mountain Dogs and Bloodhounds have a reputation, too. Interestingly, West Highland White Terriers and other terrier breeds seem to be prone to esophageal obstructions. But of course, any dog can swallow something he shouldn’t and suffer an obstruction. 


Youth is another common denominator. Young dogs may be more likely to chew on and swallow foreign objects. Sometimes wisdom comes with age, and dogs learn not to do that, but plenty of dogs continue the behavior throughout life. If you have a repeat offender, you will need to be diligent about keeping items he might want to swallow out of reach. This is a situation where it's definitely better to be safe than sorry.

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