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My Dog Ate My Homework: When Household Items Go Missing

By Dr. Hannah Albright, DVM

I bet most of us have owned (or know someone who has owned) a pesky little pup who eats anything the second your back is turned. From devouring toys and squeakers to garbage diving and stealing food from counters, we often don’t worry too much when they’ve done it previously and didn’t seem to have a problem.

Dogs truly are amazing creatures and can sometimes pass even the strangest objects through their GI tract without any issue. I’ve heard of a puppies pooping out an ENTIRE full-size plastic spoon, an adult’s sock and even a ten inch length of ‘pooped shaped’ toilet paper (the latter of the three happens to be my own pooch). However amazing they are, not every scenario is the same and sometimes even the smallest foreign material can cause a blockage if the stars align.

Abdominal radiograph of a chewed up plastic plate in the small intestines and colon.
Repeat radiograph of the same patient 3 days later. All pieces of the plate passed through without any blockage occurring.

Although we try our hardest to keep a close eye on our pets, we can’t have our eyes locked on them every second of the day and often they do (or eat) things that we don’t know about. Noticing the little changes in their behavior and attitudes may be the earliest sign that something may be wrong. Most pets begin acting a little ‘dumpy’ or less energetic. This could then turn into skipping a meal and not seeming interested in food. Most often, by the time veterinary clinics see the pet, their symptoms have progressed to vomiting and diarrhea or not pooping at all. 

After a good history and physical exam, radiographs (x-rays) of the abdomen are the next step toward diagnosing a foreign body. However, abdominal radiographs do not always show a foreign body, even when present. Materials like metal, bone and sand can show up very distinctively on a radiograph. Other materials like string, cloth material or squeakers can often blend in with the other contents of the abdomen. This can make a diagnosis very frustrating for both us as veterinarians and you as pet owners.

Abdominal radiograph of a Great Dane puppy with chewed up tennis ball lodged in the opening between the stomach and the intestines.
The tennis ball was successfully removed and recovery was uneventful.

As much as we would like to be able to definitively say that your pet has a foreign body, there is only one specific test that would tell us this: an exploratory surgery. The word ‘exploratory’ speaks for itself in this situation. It is not only used as a treatment, but also a diagnostic tool. Unfortunately, an exploratory surgery of the abdomen can often be the only true way to determine if a foreign body is present. We always tell our clients that it’s better to be on the safe side and find nothing during surgery than to wait and have the pet become very ill.

Without removal, the presence of a foreign body has deadly results. The intestines will begin to stricture around the foreign material and eventually will perforate, causing leakage of intestinal fluid and a widespread infection throughout the abdomen. This leads to a systemic infection, multiple organ failure and eventually death.

This is a post-mortem exam showing a perforation in the small intestines after a stricture formed around a squeaker.

As grave as this may seem, foreign bodies are very curable if detected early enough. If you have any doubt in your mind that your pet MAY have eaten something, consult your veterinarian immediately.  

The following images depict how difficult diagnosis of a foreign body can be. There is no foreign body present in this image.


In this image, a squeaker was discovered lodged in the intestines.

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