Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies: My Dog Ate...?

Tasty, disgusting, edible or not— everything’s fair game for curious critters
By Nick Trout, June 2011, Updated November 2020
pica in dogs

Gastrointestinal foreign bodies combine mystery, intrigue, incredulity and guilt to make for a fascinating and fickle assortment of surgical diseases. There seems to be no limit to what our pets will try to cram into their mouths; size, shape, texture and taste often playing little or no part in an oral obsession that for many owners can become a difficult and costly vice to curb. So why do our dogs, cats and even ferrets crave indigestible objects, and why are so many of these pets repeat offenders?

What Types of Dog Do this?

Young animals of two years of age or less are most commonly afflicted, and so, like inquisitive toddlers intent on putting everything into their mouths, simple curiosity plays a part. It has been suggested that in dogs, it reflects the need to hunt, that it is instinctive and a throwback to a time when their prey was eaten in its entirety. Some animals appear to enjoy the act of chewing, experimenting with the feel of an object in their mouths. My favorite theory, and one I believe I can safely share with the majority of Labrador owners, is that “it was there, so I ate it.”

Common Items Ingested

Undergarments—socks, stockings, pantihose, panties—often prove to be popular offending items. Here, perhaps, another etiology applies. In much the same way that bear attacks on people may occur more frequently among menstruating females, the olfactory stimulation of ripe underwear of either sex might prove too tempting for your curious pet.

Gastrointestinal foreign bodies related to food make perfect sense. Peach pits, corn on the cob and all manner of bones can prove irresistible to the scavenging instinct of a dog. Those little plastic pop-up timers that tell you when your chicken or turkey breast is perfectly cooked are drizzled in tasty fat, and despite being made of tasteless plastic, slip down nice and easy until they reach the small intestine. The teriyaki stick laden with succulent meaty pieces may not go down with quite the same ease, but who cares until the sharp wooden skewer begins piercing its way through a variety of abdominal organs on its errant journey through the abdomen?

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7 common items Dogs Eat with obstructive potential

Sharing our lives with creatures gifted in the art of scavenging and chewing could easily turn us into neurotic helicopter parents, overseeing and stifling all that natural, wonderful canine curiosity. In order to strike the balance, here are a few potentially risky items (in addition to shoelaces, socks, and loose threads on looped and fringed rugs) best kept out of harm’s way.

Diapers and tampons
Dogs often eat both virginal and, unfortunately, used diapers and tampons.These foreign bodies can be rescued from the trash, a changing table or a bathroom vanity. Their absorbent properties and subsequent expansion can necessitate surgical removal.

Shiny, pointy, sharp objects

Sewing needles, fish-hooks, safety pins and bottle caps can easily seduce a dog with an inquisitive mouth. If you see a length of thread or fishing line dangling from one or another of your dog’s orifices, leave it in place. Sometimes it can be helpful in locating and extracting the culprit.

Toys

If that innocent rubber duck in the bathtub looks like “good eats,” then there’s no chance for the cast of Toy Story kicking around on the living room floor. Remove temptation. When choosing a toy specifically for your dog, make sure it is sizeappropriate for the breed, cannot be swallowed whole and has no extraneous tags or buttons. Be prepared to supervise and take away if necessary.

Coins

U.S. pennies minted after 1982 contain zinc and can be toxic if swallowed. Loose change makes for an interesting X-ray and an easy diagnosis, but it needs to stay in pockets or piggy-banks.

Magnets

Decorative refrigerator magnets may be an edible alternative when the door to dogs’ favorite appliance is closed, so keep them up high and out of reach. Some of the extremely strong, neodymium magnets can be particularly dangerous. There have been several cases of dogs swallowing magnets that have found each other on their journey through the intestine with an attraction strong enough to cause bowel perforation.

Batteries

Potentially obstructive in their own right, with the added bonus of further damage if they are chewed and leak their contents when swallowed. If you are sure your dog swallowed an intact battery, then you can offer a large, soft meal and induce vomiting (try 3% hydrogen peroxide, 2 to 5 ml/kg body weight). If there is any doubt, surgical removal is probably the best option.

Gorilla Glue®

Unlike most household glues, which do not cause problems when ingested by dogs, Gorilla Glue expands dramatically by polymerization to produce a large, solid, indigestible foam. Do not induce vomiting. Surgical removal of the obstruction is invariably required.

Why Do They Do it?

For some pets, the object is simply curiosity. How else can we explain a dog eating a diamond ring, a needle and thread, a fishhook and nylon leader, a backpack, bottle caps, coins, gold balls, a leather leash that remains attached at the collar, string still tethered to a helium- filled balloon? The list of irrational objects dogs eat is endless and limited only by one’s imagination.

Occasionally, the problem can become an addiction as is the case of a dog who ate rocks. Maisie was a two-year-old Weimaraner with a penchant for eating stones. Her tastes went beyond the occasional pebble, brick end or fragment of rock because Maisie’s drug of choice was the gravel driveway of her home. We’re not talking about one or two rocks, here. Sometimes Maisie might eat 50 to 100 large pieces of coarse rock that would either accumulate in her stomach or obstruct her small intestine. After her third surgical procedure, the owners realized that it was far cheaper to put asphalt on the driveway than to continue to pay her medical bills.

But sometimes we choose to ignore what our pet’s behavior is telling us. Consider the case of one Golden Retriever who underwent gastric surgery twice after swallowing a tennis ball whole. The catch here is that the dog had two quite separate surgeries to remove the exact same ball. That’s right; the owners wanted her favorite ball returned to them after the surgery, and gave it back to the dog to play with once again.

A Vet’s Perspective

Inside Snowball's Abdomen, I find things much as I expect; loose, lazy switchbacks of pink bowel replaced by a lumpy knot of bruised intestines. Carefully, I inspect the surfaces of the duodenum and jejunum, looking for purple areas of perforation where the foreign body might have piano-wired its way through the entire wall, allowing digesting food to leak into the abdomen. Most of her guts may look like twisted telephone cord, but the tissues appear to be healthy aside from the presence of a thin linear material trapped inside the intestinal lumen.

I was trained to start at the point of fixation, in this case, Snowball’s stomach. The luxury of pulling a linear foreign body out of a single incision is unusual, especially for an object as intent on getting out the other end as this one, so opening the stomach affords the surgeon his or her first glimpse of the culprit as well as an opportunity to cut the anchor, breaking the drawstring effect and releasing the tension on the bowel.

It takes two more small incisions in the intestine to remove the entire problem, and after everything is sutured up and Snowball is resting comfortably in recovery, I head to the waiting room. The Duggan family sits watching television, but they are up on their feet as soon as they see me approach.

The answer to this mysterious foreign body had been in front of my eyes the whole time. Mrs. Duggan was wearing pumps. Mr. Duggan, a pair of well-worn work boots. Kerry Duggan sported a pair of old sneakers made unusual by one feature common to both feet—crisp, white, brand-new shoelaces. Guess what happened to the old ones?

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 47: Mar/Apr 2008

Illustration by Thorina Rose

Nick Trout is a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons and a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.