By nature, cats are very inquisitive and playful creatures, it’s what makes them so endearing. Many cats love nothing more than chasing light reflections, pouncing on shadows and play hunting with their toys. Also on the list of things that our mischievous feline friends love to play with, are balls and stray strands of wool, thread and string. However, all cat owners must be aware that playing with these seemingly harmless pieces of fabric can hold hidden dangers. 

Playing with string and ribbons can be risky

Cats should not be allowed to play or have access to any type of stranded fabric such as string. It might seem mean, but all too often we see them become very poorly from complications to do with ingesting such things. The problem with threads of any type of fabric, is that whilst playing is fine, cats often end up swallowing the material. 

Owing to the nature and length of string, and the long length, what tends to happen is that one end gets trapped at the base of the tongue or somewhere in the stomach, whilst the rest moves on through the gastrointestinal tract. Rhythmical contractions move the food along the digestive tract, but they also pull the free end of the string material away from where it’s lodged further up.

Eventually, this produces a concertina-type effect through the intestines. Causing them to bunch up on themselves around the string – the veterinary term for this is a linear foreign body

When we have a linear foreign body, the delicate intestines get dragged over the taut material with the contractions. The string can then cut into the wall of the intestine, and if the cut goes all the way through, we have a perforated intestine which is life threatening. 

If you see string hanging from your cat’s mouth . . . 

A very common indication that a cat has a string or linear foreign body, is thread or string hanging from the mouth. That said, sometimes we only suspect a linear foreign body based on seeing an unwell cat, often with gastrointestinal signs, where we can see on an X-ray that the intestines are all bunched up. Occasionally we might see the string caught around the back of the tongue when we look inside the mouth on exam. 

The key take-home if you see thread hanging from your cat’s mouth, is NOT to pull it. 

Pulling it will not only be uncomfortable for your cat, but risks cheese-wiring the string through the gastrointestinal tract if it’s stuck. Call your vets straight away for an emergency appointment, they will be able to assess your cat properly and take the appropriate steps. He will likely need sedation or an anaesthetic to examine the back of the mouth and take some X-rays or an ultrasound to look for evidence of any intestinal bunching.

Sometimes, if the X-rays are normal, we may be able to gently test for resistance on the string. Alternatively, we might pass an endoscope to see if we can follow the string down and confirm that it isn’t stuck, before pulling it out. However, if it appears to be lodged, then the cat will need surgery to remove it safely. This also allows us to assess the intestines for any damage.

What does surgery for a linear foreign body mean for my cat?

The basic procedure is similar between cats affected by a linear foreign body, but each case is unique. The extent of surgery, recovery and prognosis all vary between affected cats. It will likely depend on the damage done, the time stuck and the length of the intestine involved. 

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

Normally blood tests are done first to make sure there’s no sign of underlying disease or organ impairment and to guide fluid therapy. Then the cat is placed under general anaesthetic and the abdomen opened. The stomach and intestine are examined and palpated to determine where the string is caught; we can often simply open here, dislodge the string and remove it via the mouth.

Alternatively, if it’s stuck in the stomach or further down, then we open the bowel wherever it is and dislodge the string. If it’s not caught anywhere else we can remove it, or we tie it to a small object to feed through the intestines, so we can follow it and not lose it. Sometimes just one cut is enough, but often, to retrieve the whole lot, we have to make multiple cuts into the intestine. Depending on if the string has perforated the wall, we might need to remove parts of the damaged intestine too. This makes it a much more complicated procedure. 

Cats are normally hospitalised for a minimum of 24 hours after the procedure if it is uncomplicated. However, it can be a week or more if the damage is severe. Unfortunately, some cats with extensive damage may not survive. 

A stitch in time 

The bottom line is this, if you see string, thread or wool hanging from your naughty kitty’s mouth, don’t pull it. If it’s super long, then cut it to a reasonable length of about 15 centimetres and place a buster collar to avoid your cat trying to grab a hold of it.

Call your vets immediately. Hopefully, it’ll not be stuck and can be easily removed. But pulling it yourself isn’t worth the risk of doing serious harm to your cat. 

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