dog on pillow Urban
This innocent-looking mixed breed, Fred, ended up with VetzInsight editor Phyllis DeGioia because he ate a superball and his family didn't want to pay for the surgery. For the rest of his life, he ate like a Labrador. While he did not need a surgical zipper, Fred could have used an upchuck button. Photo by John Urban Production Co.
I have long thought that the way dogs view the world is that most of it is edible until proven otherwise. I have seen dogs eat just about any solid item you can name: tables, watches, rocks, baby pacifiers, clothes by the rackful and more toys than could fill all the Toys R’ Us in the known universe. They just love to eat stuff in the often vain hope that it really might be food. They are perpetual bowl-is-half-full, those dogs.
Fish hooks, corn cobs, and coins are notorious problem-causers. Dogs should not use themselves as portable piggy banks, but they do anyway.
Cats, on the other hand, tend to be sensible and for the most part only eat actual, confirmed food, but only after an official taste tester has verified that it's not poison, and that it tastes good enough to pass one's whiskers. They are too busy plotting the eventual overthrow of mankind to go crazy and eat rocks, socks and jockstraps. (Although they are somewhat notorious for eating long, stringy things (like string).
Some of these ingested things can heap lots of badness on the poor dogs, resulting in all manner of medical gymnastics being necessary. Some of the things that they eat have to be removed by scalpel or endoscopy, while some of them pass harmlessly through. In general, anything that get stuck (causing a blockage of the intestines, and peritonitis if the object wears its way through the intestinal wall) needs to come out via surgery, with few exceptions. If we know something is in the stomach, I might have a chance at grabbing it with an endoscope (a flexible fiber-optic camera with little grabbers), but the stomach has to be nearly empty or it becomes the proverbial needle in a haystack. The object also has to have something for my grabbers to latch onto, or lasso with a snare. Something smooth and round is a nightmare to try and remove with a scope – there’s just nowhere to grab and drag it out.
So what things might pass through without causing harm, which might get stuck, and which ones might get digested and not cause a problem? It depends on a few factors.
Size of the object: A Great Dane eating your average superball probably won’t encounter any medical misery. The superball will likely pass out the other end, bouncing its way back into the world. Give it a good cleaning and you’ve got your superball back!
Size of the pet: Actually, size of the pet relative to the foreign body. Take that same superball and put it inside a 5 kg/11 lb Yorkie and you’re set up for trouble. It might get hung up the stomach and rattle around for weeks, causing vague signs, or it may lodge in the narrower small intestine and block the passage of anything. If that happens, you’re going to need the services of your friendly neighborhood veterinarian.
Shape of the object: The reason that the superball passes out of the Great Dane (or, really, even an Above Average Dane) is that the smooth surface doesn’t give the intestine anything to hang onto and get stuck, much like my wee grabbers can’t gain purchase. As long as the dog is the right size, smooth things can sometimes slip slide away and end up in your yard.
Composition of the object: As a general rule, most biological materials (bone, rawhide, sticks) can be broken down once the stomach acid starts working on it. (Please note – I am NOT advising feeding bones to your dog. Merely that if your dog eats bones – even the dreaded chicken bones, Kryptonite of the canine universe – they can get digested and not cause a problem. There are, of course, exceptions.) But cloth, plastic, metal – most of that stuff is in it for the long haul and can’t be broken down, and is far more likely to cause an obstruction.
Sometimes it can be tough to diagnose these things! Not everything that a dog can eat will show up on an X-ray. Cloth, rubber and plastic may be totally invisible on an X-ray and we are left to look for signs that things aren’t passing through. It’s often an educated guess, and sometimes we find ourselves in the position of having to take a dog to surgery on the suspicion that something is stuck in there, without concrete proof.
Some dogs go their whole lives without eating anything they shouldn’t, or without encountering any problems when they eat something questionable. Others are frequent fliers and have several surgeries to remove objects that get lodged in their giblets. For the latter group, jokes about installing a zipper for easy surgical access are common operating room banter. I have had many patients go through life with a Hannibal Lecter-esque basket muzzle not because they are mean, but because they just won’t stop eating rocks.
It’s sometimes hard to keep always-inquisitive dogs from eating anything that’s not nailed down, but it’s worth the effort. Surgery can be risky and expensive, so it’s best to practice some common sense and avoid having to go under the knife for something so preventable.
In an extremely general sense, a dog who is stimulated and not bored (or one that has an abundance of acceptable toys to play with and chew on) is less likely to go after the verboten stuff. Make sure your dog has plenty of exercise, quality time with you and plenty of safe toys to choose from, so they don’t end up with my scope down their gullet. Unless it's a really food-motivated dog like a Labrador or beagle, in which case the rule is that stick trumps ball, food trumps stick...
Have you had any experiences with your dog, or the dogs of someone you know, eating something they shouldn’t? Did it pass or did they need surgery or scoping to remove it? Share your experiences in the comments!
August 11, 2017
Shanna Compton, DVM
August 3, 2017
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.