Foreign Body Ingestion: What Pet Parents Need To Know

Did your dog eat something they shouldn't have? Foreign body ingestion can become a serious issue quickly if you don't know what symptoms to look for.

Dr. Buck Drummond, DVM

Updated June 20, 2023 • Published June 20, 2023

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Foreign Body Ingestion: What Pet Parents Need To Know

In medical language, the term “foreign body” does not mean something from overseas, it means something that is in the body but shouldn’t be.

With dogs, that is usually the result of them eating something they shouldn’t have. While dogs can eat a lot of things they shouldn’t, and the majority of those things will move in the traditional direction and pass out naturally, sometimes those things get stuck, and that can constitute a medical—often surgical—emergency.

Read on to learn what types of foreign bodies are most common, what you should do if you see your dog eat one of these items, and symptoms to look out for that require veterinary attention.

Types of foreign bodies

What kinds of wrong things will dogs eat that become foreign bodies? That list is infinite, often surprising, and sometimes makes no sense to us humans. Rocks, batteries, coins, Matchbox cars, jewelry, remote controls…every ER vet has their own stories of the strangest things they’ve seen on x-rays or removed surgically. 

The most common foreign bodies will generally fall into two categories. The first are things that are associated with food but are not digestible—bones and corn cobs are just two examples. The second is things dogs associate with the scent of their beloved owners—this includes shoes, socks, and underwear (…a lot of underwear!). In fact, any kind of cloth or string can be especially problematic and difficult for the intestine to pass.

What to do if your dog ingests a foreign body

If you witness your dog eating something like this, you should call your vet to discuss your options. What they ate and when, and how they are acting, all factor into this decision making. Sometimes a quick trip to the hospital to induce vomiting within the first hour or two after ingestion can bring up the foreign body and resolve the problem quickly. And if you only suspect your dog ate something that is missing, an x-ray might settle that question and give you peace of mind. 

But there are riskier possibilities to consider.

Here’s an example…let’s say you’ve just come home and your dog ate the kitchen trash which contained, among other things, chicken bones.

Chicken bones are somewhat digestible, and if your dog chewed them up into small pieces, they may pass on their own. If your dog is acting normally, you can encourage that passage by feeding your dog small meals of their regular kibble, ideally softened with warm water, every hour or so. The normal ‘accordion-like’ muscular expansions and contractions that the GI tract uses to move food downstream are stimulated by the act of eating, and the fiber in dog food can bulk up around the bones to keep things flowing along. 

Unfortunately, chicken bones can also splinter when chewed, and those sharp points can get stuck in the lining of the stomach or intestine, preventing them from moving along. Larger bones might not be able to pass thru the smaller passages of the small intestine, causing a blockage.

Signs of intestinal blockage in dogs

A blockage, also referred to as an obstruction, is an emergency. The pressure of a blockage can cause pain and vomiting, and within a few hours’ time can damage the GI tissue, leading to a rupture (or ‘perforation’) in the stomach or intestine. Leakage of intestinal contents, full of bacteria and digestive acids, into the abdominal cavity can cause a deadly infection known as peritonitis.

If your dog ate a bunch of garbage, even if it is all going to eventually pass, that doesn’t mean the process is going to be fast or comfortable. There can be belly pain, lethargy, a lack of appetite, even vomiting and diarrhea. Some of these symptoms can be due to the rich, fatty human foods in that trash that your dog isn’t used to.

If your dog is willing to eat and not throwing up everything, things may be slowly passing. But if your dog won’t eat, has a distended belly, or throws up everything they take in, there is real danger of a blockage, and the clock is ticking to get them help. 

A veterinarian can determine if your dog needs medical care to reduce nausea and abdominal pain or if your dog needs surgery to remove what is stuck inside them. The sooner you contact your vet, the more options you will have and the better the outcome can be for your dog.

If you're worried your dog ate a foreign body, reach out to the Pros at Pawp—we're here to help 24/7 and can point you in the right direction.

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