It happens. In fact, it happens a lot to some of my less discriminating patients. I’m talking about their often bizarre dietary habits. Technically referred to as pica, the eating of stuff not meant for dietary consumption (though usually this terms is reserved for soil-eaters and sand gulpers), the malady can become a truly expensive habit.

Today I stopped into my friendly neighborhood specialty practice (Miami Veterinary Specialists) to pick up some stray X-rays and I, like everyone else, stood transfixed by the scene before me:

  • one anesthetized Shih-Tzu with a tracheal tube surgically attached to its windpipe through the side of his neck to make room for an endoscope snaked down its throat
  • a growing group of avid onlookers staring at an endoscopic monitor before them
  • an X-ray of said Shih-Tzu’s full belly (what do you see?)
  • one relieved toy soldier
  • and one surgeon managing somehow to rescue more of its friends from the depths of a stomach via endoscope by lassoing the little men by their heads and delivering them breech-birth style through the small dog’s esophagus

This dog had eaten more tiny toys than seemed possible. Before all was said and done, three toy soldiers and one red toy whistle. One toy I can understand—sort of. Four, I had a hard time wrapping my head around.

By the time this little one goes home he’ll have an empty stomach—and his owner will have a huge bill. At least he managed to escape having his abdomen cut open (that’s what would have happened in most hospitals, including mine).

(The endoscopic method is, believe it or not, far more expensive, but far preferable in terms of pain, infection and recovery time. Most people are unwilling to transfer a pet to a specialist only to spend far more on a chance of sparing their dog pain. Because if the surgeon can’t get all the objects out, he or she still has to cut them out the old-fashioned way. But it can be worth it. All this little guy will have is a sore neck in the spot the tracheal tube was surgically implanted.)

So now I’ve convinced you that pets can be strange. But you already knew that. You all have your own stories.

As a child, I once stood in awe as one of our black labs excreted a large 1970’s-style tube sock. She’d also eat pantyhose and underwear. (She had a penchant for undergarments.) We were lucky she always managed to pass or vomit her discreet objects of desire. But most pets are not so fortunate (at least not in my experience).

Tampons, underwear and other highly personal items are common enough but toys and miscellaneous found objects are by far the most common. Fishing sinkers, Koosh balls, Christmas tree ornaments, indigestible husks of vegetable matter (bark, corn cobs, etc.), and the detritus of toys and shoes are all frequent offenders.

To be honest, no object dislodged from an animal’s gastrointestinal tract surprises me anymore (though this Shih-Tzu’s stash came close).

“But he’s never done that before!” is always the line clients offer by way of explanation.

“I’m sure he hasn’t.” is my usual reply. There’s always that first time. And some susceptible pets just get more creative with increased vigilance on the part of their frustrated owners. Just when you think you’ve pet-proofed the entire home, they’ll manage to consume something you’d considered risk-free and truly incomestible—until the unthinkable occurs and down the gullet it goes.

Plastic parts from consumer electronic devices and other durable goods, screws and rubber bands, ribbons and dental floss...they’re all fair game. For the most frequently afflicted the surest method of prevention is an organized home and a crate or cage. Nothing else will suffice. And even that won’t keep a random-object-devoted pet away from the world’s limitless stash of potential pseudo-food.

What were they thinking? Did it even look like food? No way! They were just exercising their fun genes in ways we’ll never comprehend.

Enough of the hand wringing; finding and taking this stuff out is generally what I concern myself with. Opening and closing of stomachs, slicing and dicing and splicing of intestines (and referring to surgeons for endoscopic retrieval when possible).

These are the methods we vets employ to combat the madness in our pets’ souls. None other but these and mother nature’s patient [and often unsatisfactory attempts at] extraction will suffice.

If your pet is prone to the indiscriminate consumption of doubtful material I’m sure your story will be well received here…