Intestinal Blockage and Abdominal Surgery in Dogs
Emergency Surgery in a Dog
My family had a frightening experience with one of our dogs a few years ago. One morning Ryan was fine; by the afternoon he was sick and in distress. He refused to eat or drink and the look in his eyes told us that something was very wrong. A visit to the vet and an x-ray showed that he had swallowed a sock, which was blocking his intestine.
The vet suggested that we wait for a short time to see if Ryan's body could expel the sock on its own. A second x-ray showed that the sock had moved only a short distance during the waiting period. Major surgery was necessary to remove the obstruction from the intestine.
Thankfully, Ryan survived the surgery and returned home. Although he initially required careful and gentle care, he eventually recovered completely. This article is a tale of our experience with Ryan and his sock, a description of intestinal blockage in dogs, and a precautionary story for pet owners.
Causes of Intestinal Blockage in Dogs
Ryan is a Leonberger, a breed that is often referred to as a gentle giant. He was five years old at the time of his intestinal blockage and had never shown any tendency to eat anything “illegal” (except for the cats’ food). We have no idea why he suddenly decided to eat a sock. Some owners are continually fighting their dog’s urge to eat unusual things and often find strange objects in their dog's feces, but we haven’t had this problem with Ryan. Eating just one sock was enough to cause him serious problems.
Frequent causes of intestinal blockage in dogs include the following items:
- bones, rawhide, and sticks
- rubber balls, golf balls, marbles, and other small balls
- buttons and beads
- stones and pebbles
- peach pits
- panty hose and socks
- batteries (quite a common cause, according to our emergency vet)
- cat litter (if eaten in a large amount)
There are other things that could be added to this list. For example, I've read about dogs who have eaten magazines, tampons, rubber bands, dental floss, the nipples from baby bottles, and corn cobs.
Some objects are more dangerous than others. Items with sharp edges, such as bone splinters, may tear the intestinal lining or the lining higher up in the digestive tract. Batteries can leach poisonous chemicals if they're pierced by teeth. Metals and dyes may also be poisonous. String may wrap around intestinal tissue. Tampons will swell as they contact the moisture in the digestive tract, forming a bigger blockage, and so will cat litter.
Possible Symptoms of an Intestinal Obstruction
There are a variety of symptoms that may appear when a dog's intestine is blocked. He or she may:
- stop eating
- stop drinking
- have a painful abdomen, especially when it's touched (Use very light pressure if you try this.)
- be bloated
- be lethargic
- whine or cry
- have problems defecating or have diarrhea
Each of the symptoms mentioned above can be caused by other factors besides an intestinal obstruction. For example, vomiting may be caused by an intestinal blockage or by other conditions, as described in the video below. All of the symptoms in the list require a visit to a vet if they don't disappear quickly or if they are severe.
Vomiting in Dogs
Treating a Canine Intestinal Obstruction
Some dogs are able to expel obstructions, but we should never assume that this will happen. Even if no symptoms appear, if you suspect that your dog has swallowed something that could block his or her intestine you should contact a vet. You need to find out if your dog needs to visit the veterinary clinic right away.
If a vet visit isn't immediately necessary, you need to know how long you can safely wait to see if your dog's intestine can expel the object. As you wait, examine your dog's feces to see if the obstruction has been released and watch your dog very carefully for symptoms that indicate an emergency. Your vet may give you tips to help move the obstruction.
If the dog is dehydrated, he or she may not be able to wait for treatment. After Ryan's first x-ray, his treatment involved intravenous fluids and walks to try to get the sock to move. The second x-ray showed that surgery was required.
Abdominal Surgery in a Dog
The surgeon who operated on Ryan said that his intestine was inflamed and close to rupturing, so we are very glad that we had the surgery done when we did. Ryan's intestine was folded into an accordion shape. The muscles in the wall of the intestine continue to contract when an obstruction is present, creating a wave-like motion that normally pushes material through the intestine. This may cause the intestinal wall to bunch up next to the obstruction.
Abdominal surgery to remove a blockage is a major operation. We were told that the outcome would probably be favorable but that the surgery did involve risks. The surgeon said that sometimes when an obstruction was near the end of the colon (the main part of the large intestine) he could open the abdomen, squeeze the obstruction down the intestine and then pull it out through the anus without cutting the intestine open. Unfortunately this couldn't be done with Ryan's sock, since it was trapped in his small intestine.
We live quite close to a vet clinic that has long working hours and operates seven days a week. We also live near two emergency pet clinics. The situation would have been much more difficult—and possibly more dangerous—if we lived in a rural area.
Never try to reach into a dog's intestine yourself. Pulling an obstruction out of the intestine through the anus can be dangerous and may injure the intestinal lining.
Recovery from Surgery
When he returned home after his surgery, Ryan was given an antibiotic, a pain reliever, and a medication to reduce acid production in his stomach. He received two tablespoons of soft dog food multiple times a day, according to the vet's instructions, and also small quantities of water multiple times a day. We were allowed to take him for short, slow leash walks quite soon after the surgery. We had an Elizabethan collar (or cone) for him to wear to prevent him from nibbling his stitches.
It was wonderful to see Ryan showing an interest in the world around him and wagging his tail very soon after he returned home. One of the vets that treated him said that the first hours and the first day or two after the surgery were the most critical times, however, and that we couldn’t really relax until at least five days after the surgery.
It's important to watch for signs of a fever or increasing pain during a dog's recovery from intestinal surgery. These symptoms could indicate that fluid is leaking out of the intestine into the abdominal cavity. The cavity is lined with a membrane called the peritoneum which may become infected and inflamed by intestinal fluid. Inflammation of the peritoneum is called peritonitis and can be a very serious disorder.
Preventing an Intestinal Blockage
Please don’t read this article about Ryan's adventure with a sock and think “I’m glad that my dog doesn’t do things like that”. Remember that up until his emergency Ryan had never done things like that either! Although most intestinal blockages occur in dogs that have shown a tendency to eat dangerous items, this isn't always the case.
It's very important to keep a home containing a dog tidy and to keep potentially dangerous objects and chemicals shut up or placed out of their reach. This is important if you have children in the family, too. When you take your socks off they need to be put in a drawer or in the washing machine—a step that we are very careful to follow now.
Toys should be too large to be swallowed by your dog. If you have cats in the family as well as dogs, consider putting the cat toys away after playtime to prevent the dogs from swallowing the toys, which are often small enough to enter a dog's esophagus. If your dog is showing a tendency to mouth dangerous objects like stones, it's time for some firm training to discourage him or her from doing this.
Hendrix Swallows a Rock and Wears a Cone
Financial Preparation for Pet Health Problems
Ryan was seen by our own vet, another vet in the same clinic who is experienced in abdominal surgery, and a vet at an emergency clinic. His surgery and care were expensive, especially since the emergency clinic was involved.
The surgery was done at our vet clinic by the experienced surgeon. If the surgery had been performed at the emergency clinic it would have been even more expensive. Shortly after the operation Ryan had to be transferred by stretcher to the emergency clinic, however. The surgeon was concerned that he wasn't recovering from the anesthetic fast enough. The clinic gave him medication for pain and monitored his condition throughout the night.
I have a savings account for emergencies and I also put money into a dog fund every month to pay for vet expenses, so I was able to pay for Ryan's treatment. It took some time to recover from the expense, though. I do have a job, so I can slowly save money. I would hate to be in a situation where I couldn't pay for a major treatment that one of my pets needed. They are part of my family and I love them all very much.
If you have a pet, it's important to save a small amount of money on a regular basis to pay for vet visits. Begin as soon as the pet enters your family. A pet care insurance plan may be useful, but all plans should be investigated very carefully. A particular plan may not cover all of the problems that a pet may face. In some treatments, the larger the pet, the higher the vet fees.
Preparedness and Peace of Mind
Hopefully you will never have to obtain emergency treatment for your pet, but it's important to be prepared in case this is necessary. Making financial preparations will give you some peace of mind because you will know that you can help your pet if this becomes necessary. Knowing the route to emergency clinics and the times when the clinics are open can also bring some peace of mind because it means that medical help can be obtained quickly if necessary.
We all hope that our pets will never experience an emergency. They may never develop a major medical problem in their whole life. If they do experience a problem, though, our plans to help them can increase the chance of a happy outcome.
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© 2013 Linda Crampton