Cats are a predatory species, they love to play, they just cannot help themselves. Playing with toys that have movement, such as a toy mouse suspended by a string, is an irresistible game for a cat. This instinctive behaviour can often not be suppressed and sometimes a game with a piece of ribbon or tinsel, commonly used during festive or special occasions, can have disastrous consequences. 

Cats play with their toys as though they are prey, so naturally they may want to eat them. Unfortunately, ribbon and tinsel may be swallowed if played with and may cause serious intestinal blockages for your cat. Do not let your cat play with tinsel or ribbon and if you suspect your cat may have eaten these materials, contact your vet immediately for advice.

Keep reading as we explain the effects of eating tinsel or ribbons on cats, the symptoms of a gastrointestinal blockage and what can be done to treat these blockages in cats. 

Why is eating tinsel or ribbon harmful to cats?

When long sections of tinsel or ribbon are ingested by a cat, they may get ‘caught up’ within the gastrointestinal tract and cause an obstruction. An obstruction will prevent the normal passage of food through the stomach and intestines of the cat. When a cat eats a long section of material like tinsel or ribbon, vets refer to this as a “linear foreign body”. 

A linear foreign body tends to become anchored at one end in one part of the gastrointestinal tract whilst the other end may move along the tract. The effect of a linear foreign body is that the intestines ‘bunch up’, and the ribbon or tinsel contained within may tear through the intestines causing leakage of gut content into the abdomen.

A linear foreign body is much more serious than other types of obstruction. Peritonitis, a life-threatening abdominal infection, will occur if gut contents leak into the abdomen. A linear foreign body obstruction is a surgical emergency, so if you believe your cat may have eaten a long piece of material, like tinsel or ribbon, contact your vet immediately.

What are the symptoms of a linear foreign body?

The symptoms of a linear foreign body are the direct effect of a gastrointestinal blockage. Your cat may show the following symptoms:

  • Nausea and drooling
  • Anorexia – if your pet is feeling sick, they are unlikely to want to eat
  • Vomiting – as food is unable to pass the blockage
  • Diarrhoea – as digestion is disrupted by the blockage
  • Lethargy – weakness may develop as a result of the blockage and reduced nutrition
  • Weight loss – due to reduced nutrient absorption
  • Abdominal pain – as a direct result of the blockage or due to stomach cramps

What should you do if you suspect your cat has eaten ribbon or tinsel?

If you suspect or know your cat has eaten tinsel or ribbon, or anything that they shouldn’t have, contact your vet immediately for advice. Do not try to make your pet sick as this may cause more harm than good. Your vet will be able to offer you an appointment to have your pet examined and to discuss the diagnostic/treatment options with you.

How will my vet know if my pet has a linear foreign body?

The first clue to your vet that your cat may have ingested a linear foreign body is a history of playing with tinsel or ribbon. Your vet will examine your pet, paying particular attention to a thorough assessment of their tummy. They will ‘palpate’ (feel) their tummy and assess for the presence of pain or thickenings within the gastrointestinal tract. This process allows them to feel ‘bunched intestines’ or even the foreign body itself. 

What next?

If your vet suspects a linear foreign body, then they will recommend performing x-rays of your pet’s abdomen. Linear foreign bodies can be detected on x-rays due to changes in gas patterns within the intestines or stomach. Intestinal bunching is also sometimes evident on x-rays. 

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Will my pet be OK?

Linear foreign bodies are surgical emergencies; therefore, treatment needs to be instigated as soon as possible. Linear foreign bodies can cause severe damage to the intestines leading to peritonitis and death if not treated promptly. 

Your vet will probably need to perform an exploratory laparotomy to treat a linear foreign body. An exploratory laparotomy simply means an operation, where a vet opens your pet’s abdomen (belly) to explore its contents. Your vet will inspect your cat’s entire gastrointestinal system to identify and remove the linear foreign body. If damaged intestines are identified your vet may need to remove sections of intestine and re-join healthy sections back together (otherwise known as resection and anastomosis). Successful surgery relies on good gut healing post-operatively and sadly not all cats make it. 

Summary

Do not let your cat play with tinsel or ribbon, as they may ingest it and this could lead to a gastrointestinal blockage. Linear foreign bodies can be extremely damaging to the intestines and your pet will need emergency treatment to correct this.

Sadly, not all cases of linear foreign bodies are treatable and some cats die as a result of this condition. To avoid this risk, monitor your cat when playing, remove any items that may be ingested and use cat-friendly products. 

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