A few weeks ago, I had the horrible experience of having to deal with two major pet emergencies with my own four-legged kids: one with JP, my 12-and-a-half-year-old pit bull, and one with Echo, my 7-year-old cat. This week, we’ll talk about JP and why I now hate rawhides. Next week, we’ll focus on Echo's emergency … and the "at home" medical lessons I learned from it.
As you may recall, my rescue pit bull, JP, is named after Jamaica Plain, an "up and coming" (i.e., ghetto) area of Boston, where one literally needs a pit bull to safely cross the street. He’s the first "adult" dog that I’ve ever had, and I’m deeply attached to him (some say pathologically so). He’s gone to work with me for most of his life, survived many failed relationships ("What do you mean, you don’t know the difference between you’re and your?"), moved to three different states with me, and been my loyal companion for over a decade. So, when JP was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor ten months ago, I was devastated. Thankfully, he’s responded really well to stereotactic radiation therapy (done at Colorado State University), and has been doing well on steroids (prednisone) and anti-seizure medication (phenobarbital).
The con of his diagnosis? The drugs. They make JP ravenously hungry and thirsty, and he’s often insatiable when it comes to food and snacks. All his life, he’s been surrounded by baskets of bones, rawhides, chew toys, and has always used his discretion about chewing on them.
Well, one night, JP was quietly chewing on a rawhide bone (approximately 8" in diameter) when he all of a sudden started frantically choking. He had what we call an esophageal foreign body, which can be life-threatening when not treated immediately, as that foreign body can cause severe injury to the delicate, thin lining of the esophagus. While this shouldn’t normally cause difficulty breathing, dogs often become frantic as they can feel something pressing on their trachea.
Signs of an esophageal foreign body include drooling, pawing at the mouth, agitation, and not being able to swallow food or water. Often times, the signs will resolve after a few hours (as dogs get "used" to the feeling of something stuck in their throat), but that doesn’t mean the danger is over — in fact, it’s more dangerous, as that foreign body is slowly wearing through the lining of the esophagus. I’ve seen dogs develop severe complications even with rescue endoscopy procedures (like tearing through the esophagus, aspiration pneumonia, sepsis, etc.), and I've seen dogs die from esophageal foreign bodies.
After $1,500 and three hours of anesthesia, the emergency and internal medicine veterinarians were finally able to get the 6" piece of rawhide out of his esophagus and pharynx. Lesson learned?
For greedy chowhound dogs that like to wolf down rawhides, supervise them at all times and throw away the rawhide when it gets too small (yet large enough to get stuck in their esophagus). More importantly, for those dogs who are on medications that make them medically hungry -- such as prednisone (a steroid), and phenobarbital or potassium bromide (both anti-seizure medications) -- beware. Even this veterinarian had to pay the dear cost.
Not sure if your dog has an esophageal foreign body? It’s always worth the emergency visit to get an X-ray of the chest – your veterinarian can perform a barium swallow, which is when a small amount of dye is given orally. This will highlight anything that is stuck in your dog’s throat or stomach, and will (hopefully) give you some much needed comfort in knowing your dog will be okay.
Dr. Justine Lee