Intussusception in Dogs

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP

What is an intussusception?

An intussusception occurs when one part of the intestine slides into another part, like how a telescope collapses in on itself. It can cause a blockage in the intestine, resulting in the inability to move food through the intestine. An intussusception can occur in any area of the intestine and can also involve the colon, cecum, or stomach. It can also happen in multiple areas of the gastrointestinal tract at the same time.

An intussusception can be temporary, but if it lasts long, it can become permanent. The intestine can swell as the blood vessels get compressed, eventually causing tissue death. If this happens, intestinal content may leak into the abdomen, causing life-threatening peritonitis.

What causes an intussusception?

An intussusception is caused by irregular movement (motility) of the intestine. Many underlying conditions can cause this irregularity, including intestinal parasites, foreign bodies (non-digestible objects), acute bacterial or viral intestinal infections, other infections, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer. Sometimes a cause is not identified.

"An intussusception is caused by irregular movement (motility) of the intestine."

This condition is more common in young dogs less than a year old but can occur in older dogs as well. It also tends to occur more often in German shepherds than in other breeds.

What clinical signs suggest an intussusception?

An intussusception causes a partial or total inability to pass food normally through the gastrointestinal system, so the signs can mimic those of an obstruction, including vomiting, diarrhea, depression, and reduced or lost appetite. Affected dogs may also have abdominal pain and/or swelling. As an intussusception can be only partially obstructive or even come and go, the severity of the signs can vary and even improve initially before returning.

How is an intussusception diagnosed?

In cases of intussusception, physical exam findings often include dehydration, a high heart rate, and pale mucus membranes – findings consistent with many gastrointestinal conditions. In some cases, a veterinarian may feel a cylindrical mass in the abdomen.

Standard screening blood tests are usually recommended, including a complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry profile, and urinalysis. These tests may show evidence of dehydration, electrolyte disturbance and, less commonly, acute kidney failure.

"Ultrasound may also help determine the underlying cause of an intussusception."

Plain X-rays (radiographs) do not usually diagnose an intussusception, although a mass or an area of intestine dilated with air may be seen. Ultrasound or contrast X-rays using barium (a liquid that shows up on an X-ray) are often needed to detect an intussusception. Ultrasound may also help determine the underlying cause of an intussusception.

An intussusception may also be discovered during an exploratory laparotomy – an abdominal surgery used to diagnose and potentially treat the cause of a dog’s gastrointestinal signs.

How is an intussusception treated?

Rarely, an intussusception may correct itself. In a small number of cases, the intestine can be massaged through the skin and abdominal wall to correct the intussusception. In puppies, it may be possible to infuse saline into the colon and use water pressure to correct the intussusception.

Most cases of intussusception require surgery. Your veterinarian may remove the affected part of the intestine and surgically attach the remaining healthy intestine together. In other cases, they may manually manipulate the intestine to correct the intussusception and attach one section of the intestine to another to prevent a recurrence of the intussusception.

What is the prognosis?

Prognosis depends on the location, duration, and severity of the intussusception. Dogs with severe intussusceptions can die within a few days, without treatment. Less severe cases, such as those that don’t fully obstruct the intestine or cause tissue damage, may survive for weeks to months without specific treatment.

Prognosis with surgical treatment is good if surgery is performed early with aggressive supportive care.

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