Intestinal obstructions in dogs and cats

For the intestinal tract to work properly, fluid and food material must be able to pass through its entire length. When the passage of material is obstructed, nutrients cannot be absorbed, fluids are lost from the body and the animal can rapidly become severely ill. Obstructions may be partial or complete, with the latter being more serious.

The most common causes of foreign body are a toy or piece of string or fabric. Sometimes an indigestible food item such as a bone or rock has been swallowed by the animal. This type of obstruction tends to be more common in younger animals. There are other diseases of the intestines that can lead to obstructions, including tumors and telescoping of the bowel into itself.

The main signs of an intestinal obstruction are vomiting and loss of appetite. Fever is also common, from complicating bacterial infections. Abdominal pain is usually present, but not always.

When an intestinal obstruction is suspected, X-rays of the abdomen are recommended. Bone or metallic foreign material is visible on X-rays, but other foreign bodies may not be. Often, an abdominal ultrasound or barium study is necessary to see obstructions caused by nonmetallic foreign objects.

In most instances, intestinal surgery is required to remove the cause of the intestinal obstruction. In rare cases, objects can be removed from the first part of the small intestine with the use of an endoscope. Dehydrated and severely ill animals must be stabilized with intravenous fluids prior to surgery. Antibiotics and pain medications are always necessary. Following surgery, most animals are hospitalized for one to four days for continued intravenous fluid therapy and administration of injectable drugs and antibiotics. All liquids and foods are commonly withheld for a period of time to allow the intestines to recover.

Most animals recover fully if a foreign body was the source of the obstruction. In these cases, the main factors that influence the likelihood of survival are the severity of dehydration present prior to surgery, the time that elapsed between the onset of complete obstruction and surgery, and the presence of other complications. Animals with intestinal obstruction that do not have surgery usually die of other organ failure.

Dr. Karsten Fostvedt is a veterinarian at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum.

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