As most of you have probably experienced firsthand, dogs LOVE to eat anything — and everything — in sight. You would be shocked at the number of dogs we see each week that have swallowed something they shouldn’t have. I have seen dogs swallow everything you can imagine: socks, underwear, Legos, Hot Wheels, hackie sacks, bottle tops, baby pacifiers, rope, wooden spoons, sewing needles (still scratching my head on that one), dog beds, blankets, squeakers or stuffing out of dog toys, bones, rawhides, coins, headphones, and more. When your dog swallows these objects, sometimes they get lucky and throw them up or pass them in their feces. However, many times these objects end up stuck in their stomach or intestines causing an obstruction. Obstructions can make your dog become very sick and be in pain, and can be life-threatening if not treated.
WHAT IS AN OBSTRUCTION
An obstruction is when part of your dog’s gastrointestinal tract gets blocked, most often from something your dog swallowed. Obstructions typically occur where an object is either stuck in the stomach and blocks contents from leaving the stomach OR where an object gets stuck in the small intestines. Obstructions can also be caused by tumors, intussusceptions, hernias, intestinal parasites, and other issues. Intestinal obstructions are typically much more dangerous than gastric (stomach) obstructions. When the intestines become obstructed the stomach and intestinal contents cannot pass through like they should. If the obstruction does not get cleared or is not removed surgically, blood supply to the gastrointestinal tract can become compromised, which leads to the intestinal tissue dying and even perforating (tearing/rupturing). If the intestines perforate, bacteria can spill into the abdominal cavity causing sepsis. Obstruction can and often is FATAL if not caught and treated early. Unfortunately, emergency surgery is often required to remove the obstruction and any damaged tissue.
If you have even the slightest suspicion your dog may have an obstruction, it is important to take them to your veterinarian immediately for treatment, as time is of great importance in these cases. While some owners may see their dog eat an object or notice something missing when returning home, often owners are completely unaware that their dog swallowed anything dangerous. In these cases, knowing the signs of an obstruction in dogs can help you know when to seek veterinary help for your dog.
SYMPTOMS OF OBSTRUCTION
- Loss of appetite
- Straining during bowel movements
- Inability to defecate
- Excessive drooling
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal pain
*** There are many other causes besides an obstruction that can cause these signs in dogs. If your dog is taken to the veterinarian for vomiting and receives anti-nausea medications like Cerenia for vomiting and continues to vomit while on these medications, take them back to your veterinarian immediately for further diagnostics. Cerenia is a very potent anti-nausea medication. In my personal experience, if a dog is on Cerenia and vomits, it is likely an obstruction is present.
DIAGNOSIS OF AN OBSTRUCTION
If you see your dog eat something they shouldn’t have, or your dog has signs of an obstruction, your veterinarian will likely take radiographs (X-Rays) of your dog. Radiographs can show objects your dog swallowed, abnormal bowels, tumors, or other problems. Sometimes a radiograph is all that is needed to diagnose an obstruction. If your dog swallowed something that does not show up on radiographs (such as cloth objects or stuffing from toys), then a barium series or ultrasound may be performed. A barium series is where the veterinarian gives your dog barium, a metallic liquid that shows up white on radiographs. Radiographs will be taken over several hours to follow it as it moves through the stomach and intestines, if the barium stops moving it can indicate an obstruction present. An ultrasound may be performed as well to look for tumors, intussusceptions, or partial obstructions that could be not identified with radiographs or a barium series. If an obstruction is found or suspected, your veterinarian will determine the best treatment plan for your dog.
TREATMENT FOR AN OBSTRUCTION
If an object is seen in the stomach that appears small enough and does not have signs it is sharp or dangerous for your dog to vomit up, your veterinarian may give your dog medication to make them vomit. For minor or partial obstructions, sometimes your veterinarian can help your dog pass them with the proper medications and treatment. If diagnostics indicate a full obstruction, an object in the stomach that cannot be vomited up safely, or a partial obstruction that does not clear up with proper treatment, then an exploratory surgery will be performed to locate and remove the obstruction. If the obstruction is caught early enough, typically the object can be removed through a small incision in the stomach or intestines. If the obstruction has been present too long and has caused part of the intestines to start dying, your veterinarian may have to cut out a section of the intestines. This is why time is of the utmost importance if you believe your dog swallowed something or might have an obstruction. The difference between waiting to take your dog in until their signs are severe and taking them in immediately can make a drastic difference in how quickly they recover and how big your vet bill will be. If an obstruction is not treated, it can often be fatal to your dog.
The best way to prevent an obstruction is to keep anything your dog might ingest that could be harmful away from them. If it is small enough that your dog can swallow it, or if your dog can chew pieces of it off and swallow it, then keep it put up. This is especially difficult when you have children in the household, so it is important to discuss this with them, too. Even if you do your best to keep everything away from your dog that they could swallow, dogs will be dogs, so an obstruction can still happen, unfortunately. If you see your dog swallow something they shouldn’t or your dog begins to show signs of an obstruction, take them to your veterinarian immediately. This may help prevent them from having surgery, or even save their life.
Spencer Mills, DVM
Have you had experience with obstruction? Tell us your story and give your advice to other dog pawrents in the comments!
Dr. Mills is a veterinarian and avid dog lover who is dedicated to helping further educate pet owners on all things health related for their four-legged companions. In addition to practicing in his local vet clinic, Dr. Mills has a mobile house call veterinary business, works with numerous local shelters and rescue organizations, and is in the process of opening an emergency veterinary clinic giving him a wide array of experience in the veterinary field.