A foreign body is an item that originates outside the body. Large or irregularly shaped objects may get stuck somewhere along the digestive system and result in your dog needing urgent veterinary attention. Certain breeds are over represented as they are renowned indiscriminate eaters (eg Labradors), with younger dogs and puppies also having a higher incidence.

The location and degree of obstruction of the foreign body will determine the presenting signs, the likely prognosis as well as the most appropriate course of action. It is very important that you contact your vet as soon as you know or even suspect that your pet has eaten a foreign body, so that they can advise you on the most appropriate course of action.

What are the common objects swallowed by dogs?

Some of the more common foreign bodies that cause a problem in a dog’s gastrointestinal system include:

  • corn cobs
  • sticks
  • bones
  • string
  • balls
  • fishing hooks
  • stone fruit pips
  • toys
  • socks/stockings

What happens when a foreign body is ingested?

Some objects are small and smooth enough to pass right through the gut without causing a problem. Larger objects can get stuck within the intestine and block any food from getting through, initially causing your dog to vomit. Another problem arises due to the peristaltic (or squeezing) motion of the muscular gut wall as it tries to push the foreign body along. If the object is not removed the pressure builds up around it resulting in the blood supply to the gut wall being compromised, then becoming devitalised. In the worst case scenario the gut wall may then rupture where bacteria and ingesta can enter the abdomen causing severe pain, peritonitis, shock and eventual death.

A linear foreign body (eg a string) may be caught in the mouth but start to travel through the intestines. This results in the intestines starting to bunch up and there is a high risk of the string cutting through the intestines.

What clinical signs and symptoms will I notice if my pet has ingested a foreign body?

The clinical signs observed vary significantly and depend on the degree of obstruction, location, duration, and type of foreign body. Commonly noted signs include:

  • vomiting/regurgitation
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal pain
  • dehydration
  • drooling
  • diarrhoea (+/- blood)
  • evidence of the foreign body (ie bone stuck in mouth)
  • increased respiratory rate (due to pain)

What should I do if my dog has swallowed a foreign object?

It is important that you contact your vet straight away to let them know that this has happened. Even if you are suspicious that your dog might have eaten something, it is important to call your vet. You will receive advice as to the risk of the object getting stuck as well as the most appropriate course of action.

What will the vet do to diagnose the problem?

Once the clinical examination, symptoms and the information about the foreign body and where it is likely to be lodged is collated, your vet will be able to inform you of what is required to treat your pet.

If your pet is otherwise well and has just ingested the object (and it is safe to do so), your vet may be able to give your dog some medication to make them vomit, thus preventing a possible blockage further down the intestines. An object caught in the mouth, for example a bone caught on a tooth, may be easily removed in a consult or under a sedation or light anaesthesia. Other times if the object is small enough it is possible to monitor your dog’s appetite, clinical signs and stools to ensure the foreign object has passed through safely.

Your pet may require a blood test to rule out other causes of the clinical signs as well as checking for electrolyte imbalances, degree of dehydration and other problems related to foreign bodies. Intravenous fluids will help to rehydrate your pet.

Your vet may recommend abdominal x-rays to get a better idea of what is happening in the abdomen. They will look for the foreign body as well as changes in the gas pattern within the intestines (suggestive of a blockage). The foreign body won’t always be obvious and sometimes a contrast agent or barium study is recommended as this can outline a foreign body or highlight a blockage. An abdominal ultrasound can also be useful in assessment of the abdomen and guide treatment.

A foreign body located in the oesophagus may be diagnosed and possibly removed via a flexible endoscope (a small tubular camera placed down the oesophagus).

Prompt surgery may be recommended to remove the foreign body from the intestines to prevent blockage and possible serious sequelae. The longer the foreign body is present the more problematic is the outcome. Sometimes a section of the bowel may need to be removed as it is seen to be unhealthy and likely to breakdown post-surgery. A ruptured gut and resulting peritonitis carries with it a much poorer prognosis.

How to prevent my dog from swallowing foreign objects

There are a few things that you can do to stop your dog ingesting foreign bodies:

  • keep commonly ingested things out of reach
  • clear things from your garden eg. stones, sticks, stone fruit
  • prevent access to rubbish
  • keep your dog on a lead when out walking
  • monitor your dog when they eat bones, removing them when the meat is gone. Some dogs shouldn’t have bones as they are highly likely to ingest them. Please speak to your vet about alternative ways to keep your dog’s teeth clean.

If you suspect or have seen your dog eat a foreign body of any kind, or if you have noticed your dog is showing any of the clinical signs, it is important that you contact your vet.

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