"If I see string hanging from my cat’s butt, should I pull it?"

Nothing’s worse than having my friends or family call me at 2 a.m. to ask me random questions such as this. That said, seeing string hanging from your cat’s anus (or mouth) is more common than you think — and it can be a life-threatening emergency that requires a middle-of-the-night visit to your veterinarian or emergency veterinarian.

If you do happen to see string hanging out of your cat, please don’t pull. When in doubt, you should leave anything related to your cat’s anus up to your veterinarian, as we’re (unfortunately) pros at that end of the cat. If something’s stuck there, let the pros fix it. Do not pull it yourself! Terrible things can happen, like rupturing your cat’s intestines or colon. How’s that? It’s the dreaded linear foreign body.

Cats have a history of eating more than just an inch or two of string (which should easily pass), but when they go for one to two feet of string, just to show you that they can, that string can get stuck at an attachment point, which acts as an anchor. This occurs most commonly at the base of the tongue (where it wraps around) or at the pylorus (the end of the stomach). If you aggressively pull on that string, it can "plicate" the intestines, pulling the intestines all together and even sawing through the thin intestinal lining. When the string saws through the intestines, it can perforate the intestinal wall. This results in a "septic peritonitis" (which means there is a severe infection in the normally sterile abdomen). Immediate surgery is necessary, or septic shock can result.

Likewise, if you see string hanging from your cat’s mouth, you also shouldn’t pull! Your cat’s stomach and intestines will thank you for not unprofessionally pulling. Trust us — it took us eight years of schooling to figure out how to do it, so leave it to us. If the string is wrapped around the base of your cat’s tongue, you could cause severe injury. When in doubt, hold on to a section of the string (without getting bit or applying any tension) while you frantically find someone to drive you to an emergency clinic right away. And whatever you do, don’t cut the string. We need to be able to see it. Just keep it out of the way as much as possible, so your cat doesn’t swallow more. You can even carefully tape it to your cat’s collar as you frantically find a vet.

Signs of a linear foreign body include:

  • Vomiting
  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Hiding
  • Drooling or pawing at the mouth (initially)
  • Anorexia or inappetance
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Lack of stool or diarrhea
  • Jaundice

When in doubt, keep all ribbon, string, tinsel, yarn, dental floss, knitting materials, shoelaces, cassette tapes (are you getting the hint?) away from your cat. If you’re playing with her favorite feather-on-a-string toy, just make sure you’re supervising her the whole time, and then be a good owner — keep it out of her reach during non-playtimes so you can supervise her.

Had an experience with this? Do tell!

Dr. Justine Lee

Image: toys are for flossing with by jiva / via Flickr