Ingestion of Foreign Bodies in Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ernest Ward, DVM; Updated by Amy Panning, DVM

Do cats ingest things they shouldn't?

Cats are curious by nature. They love to investigate new sights, smells, and tastes. Unfortunately, this curiosity can lead them into trouble. This is probably how the saying "curiosity killed the cat" began. Cats are notorious for ingesting thread, wool, paper, rubber bands, plant materials, and small toys. Many of these foreign objects pass through the intestinal tract without a problem, and it is common for cat owners to report all sorts of objects found in their cat's vomit or stool. However, not all foreign objects pass through the digestive tract without complication.

"Cats are notorious for ingesting thread, wool, paper, rubber bands, plant materials, and small toys."

How serious is foreign body ingestion?

Foreign body obstruction is a common and potentially life-threatening condition in veterinary practice. Although most foreign bodies do pass uneventfully through the intestinal tract, if an obstruction occurs for some reason, surgical removal of the blocked object is the only treatment.

Another potentially life-threatening condition may occur if the cat swallows thread. Curious cats easily swallow thread; however, once in the mouth, it can be challenging to spit it out since the spines on their tongue hold it in. As a cat swallows the thread, it may become wrapped around the base of the tongue or anchored in the stomach and will pull against this area every time the cat swallows. If the thread is attached to a needle, the needle may pierce the stomach or intestines and prevent the thread from passing through. (See the “Linear Foreign Bodies in Cats” handout for more information.)

How do I know if my cat has eaten a foreign body?

Most pets that have ingested a foreign body will exhibit some of these clinical signs:

• Vomiting
• Diarrhea
• Abdominal tenderness or pain
• Decreased appetite or anorexia
• Straining to defecate or producing small amounts of feces
• Lethargy
• Changes in behavior such as biting or growling when picked up or handled around the abdomen
• Pawing at the mouth if there is string or thread wrapped around the base of the tongue

How is foreign body ingestion diagnosed?

After obtaining a thorough medical history, your veterinarian will perform a careful physical examination. If a foreign body is suspected, abdominal radiographs (X-rays) and ultrasound will be performed. Several views or a series of specialized radiographs using contrast material (barium or other radiographic dye) will often be necessary. In addition, your veterinarian may recommend blood and urine tests to assess whether the obstruction has compromised your cat’s health or to rule out other causes of vomiting, such as pancreatitis, enteritis, infection, or hormonal diseases (e.g., Addison's disease).

"...your veterinarian may recommend blood and urine tests to assess whether the obstruction has compromised your cat’s health..."

How is an intestinal foreign body treated?

Exploratory surgery is generally recommended if a foreign body obstruction is diagnosed or suspected. Time is critical since an intestinal or stomach obstruction often compromises or cuts the blood supply to these vital tissues. If the blood supply is interrupted for more than a few hours, these tissues may become necrotic (die), and irreparable damage or shock may result.

In some instances, the foreign body may be able to pass on its own. In this event, your veterinarian may recommend hospitalization of your cat for close observation and to perform follow-up radiographs to track the progress of the foreign object. These abnormalities will also require treatment if any clinical signs are related to an underlying condition or if diagnostic testing indicates compromised organ systems.

What is the prognosis?

The prognosis is based on:

• The location of the foreign body
• The duration of obstruction
• The size, shape, and characteristics of the foreign body
• Your cat's health status before foreign body ingestion

Your veterinarian will provide detailed diagnostic and treatment plans and an accurate prognosis based on your pet's condition. Please contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if you are concerned that your cat has ingested a foreign object.

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