In the ER: The Dog that Swallowed a Unicorn

Tales from a Colorado ER.
By John Geller, November 2009, Updated February 2015

Frank loved to eat things. As a stout one-year-old Lab, eating is what he lived for. Sharing a home with a family that included six-year-old quadruplets supplied him with plenty of objects of his desire. His family reported finding lost clothing, toys and other random items in his stool. Frank avoided any serious issues with his indiscriminate eating habits until one night last month, when he decided to swallow a Beanie Baby unicorn.

After vomiting for 24 hours, and losing his famous appetite, Frank’s owners knew something was wrong. X-rays at our emergency hospital showed a strange bulge in his intestine, with a triangular object encircling it. Large pockets of gas upstream from the blockage confirmed that he had a surgical problem, and off to surgery he went.

Our emergency veterinarians opened up a piece of Frank’s intestines, and found the Beanie Baby unicorn without even a tooth mark on it. Frank must have wolfed it down as if it was a cocktail wiener. Wrapped around the unicorn—perhaps substituting for a piece of bacon—was a rubber band, which is what showed up as a triangle on the X-ray.

Frank had about a foot of his intestines removed, and then the remaining ends were sutured back together. The next day, as Frank recovered from his surgery, we discussed strategies for preventing future recurrences.


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“How about a cage muzzle?” I suggested, and the owner agreed it would be a good idea, considering the chaos that usually ruled at his house. With five children running around, the availability of a pair of stray socks, underwear or even another Beanie Baby, was inevitable. The Frankster went home the next day with his owner, the intact Beanie Baby cutely enclosed in a plastic baggie, perhaps destined for display on the fireplace mantle.

We did not expect to see Frank back at our hospital, but one week later he was sick again. He was lethargic and not eating, and one look into his eyes would tell you he was not feeling well. He was clearly, please excuse the expression, “sick as a dog.” Repeat X-rays were suspicious for another blockage, and ultrasound confirmed it the next day. Frank went back to surgery at his regular veterinarian’s clinic, where a large wad of impacted grass and more intestines were removed. Apparently, he had been grazing in the yard, despite the cage muzzle.

Hopefully, we have seen the last of Frank. He doesn’t have much in the way of intestines to spare. Every time dogs undergo repeat surgery, adhesions can form on the surface of their intestines, causing them to stick together. Any previous surgery site can shrink down into a stricture, creating the risk of future blockages. Frank’s family will have to be diligent about keeping his cage muzzle on, and ensure that all he eats is dog food. This should help guarantee that the family’s remaining Beanie Bay collection remains intact. Maybe Frank’s owners could sell it to cover some veterinary bills.

Dr. Jon Geller is an emergency veterinarian and freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo. His pets include Raindog, a somewhat dysfunctional, but water-loving, lab mix. You can follow all of Dr. Geller's "In the ER" blogs.