What is it?
Dogs eat the most bizarre things! Mostly their gut is quite resilient, but sometimes they will eat something which is not food. If the object cannot pass through it will cause a blockage. We call these objects ‘foreign bodies’. Common foreign bodies include socks, underwear, stones, parts of toys, kebab sticks, cloth, peach stones, corn cobs, plastic, rolls of tape, tennis balls, laminate flooring and even potatoes!
Why is it important?
If the blockage occurs within the intestines, then this can be a life threatening emergency. A blockage means that the gut cannot work to push food along during the phases of digestion. The gut may continue to try and move, and the blockage will damage the gut wall, causing it to lose its blood supply. The worst thing that can happen is that the gut can burst (perforate) at this point. This situation may be fatal due to a serious internal infection (peritonitis). If a blockage is suspected, your vet must examine the dog as soon as possible and work out if surgery is needed.
What is the risk?
Some dogs remain bright and stable despite having a blockage in their gut. Others may be seriously ill. The vet will provide fluid therapy, pain relief and often antibiotics around the time of surgery to try and make sure that they are as stable as possible. When the dog undergoes surgery and the surgeon has to make a cut into the intestines or the stomach, there is always a risk that the wound may break down, causing leakage into the abdomen. This situation may require further surgery, or in the most severe cases euthanasia (humanely ending their life to stop the suffering). One very difficult situation to manage is the ‘linear’ foreign body, when the dog eats string or cloth. If one end becomes stuck and the rest continues along the gut, it causes the intestines to bunch up along the string. These patients may have multiple perforations and require damaged gut to be removed. Uncomplicated foreign body surgeries usually recover well within 10-14 days.
What happens to the dog?
A dog with a blockage is usually vomiting. This may be acute (sudden onset) or more occasional. Vomiting dogs will quickly dehydrate, so it is recommended that they are examined as soon as possible. Your vet will examine the dog in the clinic and recommend further tests if they suspect a blockage.
How does the vet know what is going on?
They need to establish whether the gut is blocked. Your dog will be examined in the clinic. If the dog shows signs of pain or thickening within the gut when we have a gentle feel, then an X ray (radiograph) is necessary to check for a blockage. The vet can also use ultrasound scanning to help with this. Some foreign bodies are quite obvious on an X ray, others can be more difficult to detect. It often helps to sedate the patient and have a good feel of the intestines with the dog calm and relaxed.
What can be done?
If it is confirmed that the dog has a blockage, then your vet will need to go ahead with surgery to remove it. The dog is anaesthetised and prepared for surgery. They will usually make a surgical wound near the umbilicus (belly button). It is important to explore the whole gut and feel for the blockage. Once they have found the cause, they will carefully assess the gut. The surgeon needs to know if the gut is able to move normally, and if it has enough of a blood supply to survive. If the gut is black, infected or very bruised looking then it may be appropriate to remove the damaged gut. They can do this by packing off the affected gut from the rest of the abdomen with swabs, cutting out the affected gut, then stitching the two healthy parts back together. If the gut looks healthy where the blockage is, it is usually possible to make a cut and remove the blockage. The wound is stitched and checked for leaks. The abdomen is flushed with saline, and we check the rest of the gut for any further problems. The surgeon can then stitch the surgical wound and the patient is moved to recovery. Once the patient is awake, food can gradually be reintroduced, but the dog usually has to stay in the clinic for some time for observation to make sure there are no complications.
How can I protect my pet?
Making sure that your pet cannot have access to anything that may get stuck is very important. Some dogs are much more keen to investigate and chew things than others. Choosing toys that do not have parts which can be chewed off and swallowed, and restricting access to household objects, as well as ensuring that the dog does not become bored during the day will hopefully prevent scavenging and chewing behaviours. Some owners resort to muzzling their dogs when out and about to try and prevent scavenging behaviour. If your dog is vomiting, we strongly advise you to contact your vet for an appointment. It is not uncommon for dogs to vomit from time to time, but if the vomiting is continuous then a vet must examine them.