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Intestinal Blockage and Abdominal Surgery in Dogs

Linda Crampton is a former biology teacher, a writer, and a long-time pet owner. She has or has had dogs, cats, and birds in her family.

Ryan is happy but tired. Recovering from major surgery is hard work!

Ryan is happy but tired. Recovering from major surgery is hard work!

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. It’s important to note that Ryan remained at the veterinary clinic during this time, based on the veterinarian’s advice. Waiting with him at home could have been a dangerous situation. 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.

Ryan during a walk before his intestinal blockage

Ryan during a walk before his intestinal blockage

Some 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 pet'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
  • toys
  • string
  • stones and pebbles
  • coins
  • peach pits
  • cloth
  • pantyhose and socks
  • underwear
  • 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.

Misha, my Labrador Retriever, and a healthy Ryan

Misha, my Labrador Retriever, and a healthy Ryan

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
  • drool
  • vomit
  • 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, are recurrent, or are severe.

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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 pet'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.

My sister and Ryan at the vet clinic after the surgery; she's tired but happy that the operation is over

My sister and Ryan at the vet clinic after the surgery; she's tired but happy that the operation is over

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.

Our cat Bennie and a healthy Ryan

Our cat Bennie and a healthy Ryan

Ryan's 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.

Ryan wearing a cone (This photo was taken after a different situation from his intestinal obstruction surgery.)