The dog ate what?!?

Farm Forum

Interpreting X-rays is a skill I never felt completely confident about. You have to interpret miniscule differences in shades of gray, and you have to know whether a line represents pathology or normal anatomy. I quickly learned to appreciate occasions when I would take a film out of the developer and a blatant abnormality would jump out at me.

A veterinary magazine recently had a “contest” where vets could submit interesting X-rays they had taken. These were fun to look at because the diagnoses were all very obvious. All involved weird things that pets had eaten!

Some animals – dogs, particularly – will swallow almost anything. The most impressive entrants were those in which you could easily identify what the animal swallowed. A Christmas tree light bulb. A toy action figure. And a barbecue skewer. The side view of that X-ray shows a perfectly straight barbecue skewer extending from the bottom of the belly to the backbone of a 6-year old German Shorthair. That one won the contest. (Incidentally, the dog is doing fine after the skewer was surgically removed!)

In practice, these indiscriminate eaters tended to be younger, inquisitive animals with a knack for getting into things they shouldn’t. Any animal can eat something they shouldn’t, but in my experience young, wacky Labrador Retrievers are the poster child for this malady!

These patients have a typical history. They’ve been vomiting for several days and haven’t been eating. They’re usually healthy animals with an abrupt onset of these signs.

There’s a long list of things that cause dogs to throw up. Of course, not every garbage can dining spree results in an intestinal blockage. Typically, vomiting spells result from simple cases of gastritis where the dog ate something that didn’t agree with him.

But when there’s something large and non-digestible caught in the stomach or intestines, the vomiting doesn’t go away on its own. Whatever enters the intestinal tract can’t follow its normal path out the body, so it’s expelled by vomiting.

Many foreign bodies are easily diagnosed with X-rays. But some are not. Metallic or very dense objects show up well. However, some foreign objects, such as fabric or certain rubber balls have an X-ray density similar to the abdominal organs and don’t stick out at all. For these, the veterinarian feeds the animal a “contrast” solution that outlines the foreign invader on the X-ray.

Once the diagnosis is made, the question turns to what to do. Occasionally an owner will see the dog eat the offending object and we can induce to dog to throw it up. This only works if the object is still in the stomach. Allowing the object to come out the other end is often possible if the object is small enough and the animal is big enough.

For most of the cases that end up in the vet’s office, the object isn’t budging and we have to go in and get it. Many companion animal vet practices have endoscopes – long fiber optic tubes with grabbers — that can be snaked down the esophagus to retrieve objects. In other cases, surgery is necessary.

Fortunately, these cases normally have happy endings. The patients are often young and otherwise healthy, and bounce back quickly. However, when the object has perforated the intestines, leaking contaminated material into the abdomen, the situation can be life-threatening. A common example of this is when a cat eats a string. The string can get hung up while the intestines keep moving around it. If this goes on long enough, the string can wear holes in the gut.

Every vet has a favorite foreign object story. Mine was a young lab that came in for persistent vomiting. He felt unusually heavy when I lifted him onto the exam table. Upon examination, his abdomen felt like he had rocks in his stomach. This was because he actually had rocks in his stomach! This crazy dog loved to flip landscape rocks into the air and swallow them. I surgically retrieved 110 small river rocks from his stretched-out stomach!

Most of the time, our animals’ dietary indiscretions “pass” right through them, but sometimes they cause bigger problems. Contact your veterinarian promptly if you suspect something is blocking up your pet!

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.