Foreign Bodies

Tasty, disgusting, edible or not— everything’s fair game for curious critters
By Nick Trout, June 2011

Foreign bodies combine mystery, intrigue, incredulity and guilt to make for a fascinating and fickle assortment of surgical diseases. There seems to be no limit to what our pets will try to cram into their mouths; size, shape, texture and taste often playing little or no part in an oral obsession that for many owners can become a difficult and costly vice to curb. So why do our dogs, cats and even ferrets crave foreign bodies, and why are so many of these pets repeat offenders?

Young animals of two years of age or less are most commonly afflicted, and so, like inquisitive toddlers intent on putting everything into their mouths, simple curiosity plays a part. It has been suggested that in dogs, it reflects the need to hunt, that it is instinctive and a throwback to a time when their prey was eaten in its entirety. Some animals appear to enjoy the act of chewing, experimenting with the feel of an object in their mouths. My favorite theory, and one I believe I can safely share with the majority of Labrador owners, is that “it was there, so I ate it.”

Undergarments—socks, stockings, pantihose, panties—often prove to be popular offending items.Here, perhaps, another etiology applies. In much the same way that bear attacks on people may occur more frequently among menstruating females, the olfactory stimulation of ripe underwear of either sex might prove too tempting for your curious pet.

Foreign bodies related to food make perfect sense. Peach pits, corn on the cob and all manner of bones can prove irresistible to the scavenging instinct of a dog. Those little plastic pop-up timers that tell you when your chicken or turkey breast is perfectly cooked are drizzled in tasty fat, and despite being made of tasteless plastic, slip down nice and easy until they reach the small intestine. The teriyaki stick laden with succulent meaty pieces may not go down with quite the same ease, but who cares until the sharp wooden skewer begins piercing its way through a variety of abdominal organs on its errant journey through the abdomen?

For some pets, the object is simply curiosity. How else can we explain the allure of a diamond ring, a needle and thread, a fishhook and nylon leader, a backpack, bottle caps, coins, gold balls, a leather leash that remains attached at the collar, string still tethered to a helium- filled balloon? The list of irrational objects is endless and limited only by one’s imagination.

Occasionally, the problem can become an addiction.Maisie was a two-year-old Weimaraner with a penchant for stones. Her tastes went beyond the occasional pebble, brick end or fragment of rock because Maisie’s drug of choice was the gravel driveway of her home.We’re not talking about one or two rocks, here. Sometimes Maisie might binge on 50 to 100 large pieces of coarse rock that would either accumulate in her stomach or obstruct her small intestine.After her third surgical procedure, the owners realized that it was far cheaper to put asphalt on the driveway than to continue to pay her medical bills.

But sometimes we choose to ignore what our pet’s behavior is telling us. Consider the case of one Golden Retriever who underwent gastric surgery twice after swallowing a tennis ball whole. The catch here is that the dog had two quite separate surgeries to remove the exact same ball.That’s right; the owners wanted her favorite ball returned to them after the surgery, and gave it back to the dog to play with once again.

* * * * *

Inside Snowball's Abdomen, I find things much as I expect; loose, lazy switchbacks of pink bowel replaced by a lumpy knot of bruised intestines. Carefully, I inspect the surfaces of the duodenum and jejunum, looking for purple areas of perforation where the foreign body might have piano-wired its way through the entire wall, allowing digesting food to leak into the abdomen.Most of her guts may look like twisted telephone cord, but the tissues appear to be healthy aside from the presence of a thin linear material trapped inside the intestinal lumen.

I was trained to start at the point of fixation, in this case, Snowball’s stomach. The luxury of pulling a linear foreign body out of a single incision is unusual, especially for an object as intent on getting out the other end as this one, so opening the stomach affords the surgeon his or her first glimpse of the culprit as well as an opportunity to cut the anchor, breaking the drawstring effect and releasing the tension on the bowel.

It takes two more small incisions in the intestine to remove the entire problem, and after everything is sutured up and Snowball is resting comfortably in recovery, I head to the waiting room.The Duggan family sits watching television, but they are up on their feet as soon as they see me approach.

The answer to this mysterious foreign body had been in front of my eyes the whole time. Mrs. Duggan was wearing pumps. Mr. Duggan, a pair of well-worn work boots. Kerry Duggan sported a pair of old sneakers made unusual by one feature common to both feet—crisp, white, brand-new shoelaces. Guess what happened to the old ones?

Nick Trout is a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons and a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.