Trains, Planes and Golf Balls
Many years ago, I examined a young Golden Retriever that had been feeling unwell for a few days. She was not eating, not wanting to play or exercise, hunched over and generally miserable. After blood tests and radiographs I decided to perform an exploratory laparotomy, where we open up the abdomen and examine the contents.
Lo and behold, there was the problem - she’d eaten a cassette tape. For those of you too young to remember, cassette tapes were long reels of magnetic tape that held music. The one she had eaten had broken the plastic casing and tape was stretched out along her intestines, cutting through the intestinal wall.
Foreign bodies occur when pets eat something that will not easily pass through the intestines. They range from string, to child’s toys, balls, pants and socks to quite bizarre items. As a students, we were shown an X-ray of a German Shepherd that had swallowed an eight-inch hunting knife that was trapped in its oesophagus (and the dog was absolutely fine following its removal).
The damage they cause depends on how long it’s been in there, where it is, how much it obstructs the flow of material through the intestines and the material it is made of. If the foreign body penetrates through the intestines, then inflammation of the abdominal lining (peritonitis) and bacterial infection (sepsis) can quickly become life threatening.
The symptoms that pets show can also be quite varied, most usually vomiting, loss of appetite, dehydration and sometimes even diarrhoea. Occasionally, there is a history of eating things they shouldn’t. Someone I know often sends me images of the socks, TV controllers, food packets that have gone through her dog’s digestive tract.
Some animals snaffle objects when they are out on walks and cats often raid bin bags left out for collection, especially if there is meat left in there.
Blood tests to rule out other causes of disease and radiographs are performed. If an object is radio-dense it shows up on X-ray easily. Some plastics, most balls and metal objects show up nicely. Other objects do not show up and it is often then side effects they cause such as gas build up that give clues to the cause of your pet’s illness.
The most difficult foreign body to diagnoses are linear foreign bodies. These include string and elastic. They become trapped at one end and as they stretch along the intestines they can cut the bowel or concertina it. Because they are so thin they are very difficult to see on imaging and are often only found on abdominal exploration.
Surgery is not always required as some objects will pass through. However, with simple uncomplicated obstructions, recovery is usually speedy and within one or two days of fluid therapy, antibiotics and nursing care your pet is back to full health.
However, those cases with peritonitis, gut death due to the long time the foreign body has been stuck, or sepsis, carry a much more guarded prognosis and may required repeated surgery.
As for the Golden Retriever as the beginning of this tale, I had to remove the cassette tape through seven openings in her intestines and remove a 12-inch section of bowel but within a week she was fully recovered and home. Her owners had also made her home foreign-body safe – all cassette tapes had been thrown out and there was nothing left out that she could ever demolish again.