Gazette Vet: Omnivore’s Dilemmas

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by John Andersen, DVM

Through my years of veterinary school at Virginia Tech, there was an X-ray hanging by the radiology department clearly showing a 12-inch carving knife in the abdomen of a dog. This was no hoax, and while I don’t remember the story exactly, I believe some knucklehead dog jumped on the family dinner table, started going to town on the turkey dinner, and simply got carried away. But really, a 12” carving knife?! There seems to be no limit to what some dogs will try to eat!

Removing a foreign body from a dog or cat’s belly is a memorable experience. I can recall Butch, who, after eating and passing at least 30 socks during his life, finally ate a sock and a kid’s toy at the same time—a dangerous combo.

I remember Abigail, who regrets nothing from eating a corn cob, even though it led to her losing about a foot of intestines.

And how could I forget Jack, a Golden Retriever who had surgery on three separate occasions—a Greenie and two rocks. Jack’s owner was very stressed out that his driveway was gravel and stone. Fortunately, Jack has since matured.

This past fall was acorn season, with two separate dogs who had perfectly intact acorns blocking their small intestines. I suggested to the owners that they plant them and grow a very expensive oak tree.

Rexi was a small dog who ate a lot of pennies and had severe zinc toxicity and a bad stomach ulcer. Unfortunately, his “personal piggy bank” did not come close to paying the bill.

Ms. Jones is a client who is always a little embarrassed when she comes in because we’ve seen her underwear on three separate occasions – thanks to her dog, of course.

Jazzy is a cat who tried to commit suicide by eating threads she got from the underside of a box spring on their bed. Prissy, another cat, ate a plastic letter B.

Lucy, a Labrador, at the age of seven finally decided to try to eat a doormat. Maggie was another Labrador who at the age of 14 (no kidding!) ate her bed.

Sugar’s mom knew it was trouble when she saw her eat a hambone from the trash.

Jasmine finally got blocked up with about six of mom’s hair scrunchies. Dad was pretty upset about that one; he made sure to bring up how many times he warned her to keep them in a safer place.

These are all true stories of dogs and cats who this humble servant has had to perform surgery on for foreign body removal. If you ask other veterinarians, they will all describe a similar list of funny and not so funny cases. Fortunately, most pets are brought in to us in time to diagnose and treat the problem before it’s too late. Too late would be when the foreign object has penetrated or ruptured the intestines. Those are the sad cases where pets die, even with surgery.

Fortunately, for all the cases we see of dogs and cats whom have eaten something they shouldn’t have, only a small percentage actually need surgery. Most foreign objects will either pass or be vomited up. But don’t let that be a comfort to you if your dog is sick and you suspect it’s because he ate something—a delay of even a day can be the difference between life and death if there is an obstruction.

Usually the call starts with a sick, vomiting animal. There are two problems with eating a foreign object. First, it will block up the intestines, not allowing anything else to pass. Hence, the vomiting. Second, the intestines will unfortunately keep trying to help the object along by offering wave after wave of intestinal contraction. This usually only lodges the object tighter and tighter leading to significant stretching and pressure on the intestinal wall. This is extremely painful and leads to a very sick patient.

Most of the time, using a history, physical exam, and a few tools like X-rays and ultrasound, we are able to determine if your pet simply has some gastroenteritis or whether we need to set up the operating room.

So, remember that dogs have no shame and will eat just about anything given the chance. Also, even though they pretend to be the more intelligent species, cats can also succumb to the temptation of eating things they shouldn’t. If your pet is vomiting, not eating, or just really sick and you think it could’ve eaten something, give your vet a call just to be on the safe side. And hope your dog’s X-ray doesn’t enlighten students at the vet school for the next decade!