Signs of Gastrointestinal Obstruction in Dogs and Cats

April 27, 2017

By Linda Cole

Our pets are great at finding small insects and other things to eat on the ground or floor. What’s more, they will often wolf something down before we realize what’s going on. Most bugs are ok for our pets to eat, but sometimes they ingest non-food items that can put them at risk of a gastrointestinal obstruction, and this can be life-threatening. Fortunately, there are signs that your pet has an obstruction.

Both dogs and cats use their mouth to investigate their world, but their curiosity can get them into trouble if they eat something that gets stuck in the esophagus, stomach or intestines.. Cats might ingest string, thread, yarn, small toys, tinsel, buttons, sewing needles, coins, toilet paper, pieces of plastic or other small foreign objects. Dogs are not discriminating when it comes to eating strange things such as clothing, rocks, coins, broken light bulbs, tennis balls, toys, string, thread, pieces of chewed up sticks and other non-food items.

Some dogs love running around with a stick in their mouth, which can cause an obstruction if he accidentally rams it down his throat while playing. Bones, especially cooked bones, can get stuck and become an obstruction. Besides a possible blockage, pets who swallow pennies are also at risk of zinc poisoning. Intestinal parasites and other medical conditions can also cause an obstruction in pets.

A gastrointestinal blockage is something all pet owners need to be aware of because it is a common medical problem. Also called a bowel obstruction, blockage occurs when food or liquids are stopped from passing out of the body through the GI tract. It can be a partial or complete blockage, which can cause a decrease of blood flow in the bowels. Left untreated, a lack of proper blood circulation can lead to tissue deterioration and shock, and puts your pet at risk of developing a life-threatening infection called septic peritonitis, which can occur when tissue breaks down and leaks toxic contents into the abdomen.


Signs to watch for that indicate your pet has a bowel obstruction include: loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, discomfort, irritation at being picked up, dehydration, bloating and weakness. Pawing at the mouth or neck, coughing or gagging is a good sign something is caught in the throat.

It usually takes around 10-24 hours for anything that’s swallowed to move through the digestive tract. If your pet has ingested a foreign object, it is possible for it to move into the stomach and stay there for much longer – sometimes for months. Once a non-food item reaches the colon, it will likely pass on without any problem unless it’s a sharp object which could damage tissue and require a trip to your vet. Never attempt to pull out something you see protruding from your pet’s behind. Pulling on something that’s still lodged inside the body could severely damaged internal tissues surrounding the rectum.

Puppies and kittens are more apt to ingest something that could cause an obstruction, because the innocent age of youth is a time of discovery. But all pets, regardless of age, can be affected. There are also some medical conditions that can cause intestinal obstruction, but most cases can be prevented.


One of the best ways to keep your pet from ingesting a foreign object is to pet proof your home, and make sure all toys are the appropriate size for your particular dog or cat. Keep small, easy-to-swallow items picked up off the floor and safely stored away from inquisitive mouths. Never leave string, yarn or ribbon where your cat can reach them. Don’t let your dog chew on tennis balls, and put balls up when you aren’t around to supervise your pet. Inspect toys regularly to make sure there’s nothing on them that could be chewed off and easily swallowed – and throw a toy away if it’s torn or damaged. Teach your dog the “leave it” and “drop it” commands to prevent him from picking something up in the first place. Both are basic commands all dogs should learn.

Dogs and cats are going to explore their surroundings, and we aren’t always able to be around to make sure they don’t eat something that could be harmful. If you notice any signs of an intestinal obstruction, call your vet immediately. Surgery may be required to remove whatever is causing an obstruction. The sooner you seek medical attention for your pet, the better his chances are for a full recovery.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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