Foreign Objects Stuck In the Esophagus of Cats

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
Written by:
Published: November 4, 2022
Foreign Objects Stuck In the Esophagus of Cats

What Is Esophageal Obstruction or Esophagus Blockage in Cats?

Cats enjoy inspecting the world around them, typically with their mouth, and because of this they often ingest things they shouldn’t.

An esophageal obstruction or blockage can occur when a cat ingests a foreign object and that object becomes stuck in their throat instead of passing into the stomach.

The esophagus, part of the gastrointestinal system, starts at the back of the mouth and is the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Having a foreign object or material stuck in the esophagus can lead to a potentially life-threatening situation. For example, it can cause a tear in the esophagus or lead to an intestinal blockage.

While it is more common for a dog to have an esophageal obstruction, it happens in cats too. Having a foreign object stuck in the esophagus (known as an esophageal foreign body) can cause a physical blockage, swelling, and death of the tissue making up the wall of the esophagus.

If you notice or suspect that your cat has ingested foreign material or a foreign object, it is considered a medical emergency. Contact your local veterinary hospital immediately.

Common Foreign Objects Cats May Ingest:

  • Piece of thread or a sewing needle

  • Hair bands or hair ties

  • Bones

  • Large food material, often without chewing

    • Large dog kibble

    • Table food

    • Rawhides or chew treats

  • Toys—both pet toys and small objects children play with, such as Legos

  • Coins

  • Buttons

  • Yarn

  • Christmas tree decorations (tinsel or small ornaments)

Full Esophageal Obstruction Vs. Partial Esophageal Obstruction

An esophageal obstruction occurs with the ingestion of objects that are of a size, shape, or texture that will cause them to get stuck in the esophagus.

A partial obstruction occurs when something is stuck in the esophagus but it does not completely block the tube. In this case, food and water can still pass into the stomach and routine digestion can continue. In a partial obstruction, often there are few or no immediate clinical signs, but they develop over time.

A full esophageal obstruction occurs when the entire tube is blocked and nothing else can pass. With a full obstruction, if food or water is ingested after the object, the food or water will get stuck, or it will quickly be vomited back up. After ingestion of a foreign body, objects often get stuck in the area where the esophagus narrows in the chest cavity, or where the esophagus meets the diaphragm just before the object should pass into the stomach.

Symptoms of Foreign Objects Stuck in the Esophagus of Cats

Clinical signs depend on the exact location, and if the obstruction is fully or partially blocking the esophagus:

Signs of an esophageal obstruction:

  • Drooling

  • Continuous swallowing

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Extension of the head and neck

  • Gagging

  • Regurgitation

  • Vomiting

  • Decreased or no appetite

  • Depression

  • Inability to settle down, restlessness

  • Trouble breathing

Signs of partial obstruction in addition to those above:

  • Weight loss

  • Lethargy

  • Bad smell coming from the mouth

How Veterinarians Diagnose Foreign Objects Stuck in the Esophagus of Cats

Your veterinarian will want a thorough history of your cat’s health, onset of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have led to this condition. You should describe anything you believe your cat might have eaten that could have become lodged in its esophagus.

Your veterinarian will do a physical exam and an x-ray of the esophagus and chest. Most objects or materials that your cat ingests are visible on an x-ray. If the object is not visible, it may be necessary to have your cat swallow barium, a liquid that can make it visible on the x-ray.

Another diagnostic tool used to diagnose an esophageal obstruction is an endoscope, a long, flexible tube with a tiny camera at the end that is passed through the mouth and into the esophagus to locate the problem. Endoscopy requires heavy sedation or general anesthesia to relax the mouth and muscles in the esophagus and ensure that your cat does not bite or damage the camera.

Standard blood and urine tests, including a chemical blood profile, complete blood count, urinalysis, and an electrolyte panel, are usually required to make sure it’s safe to use sedation or anesthesia on your cat. These diagnostics can also help to determine if the esophagus has any damage from ingesting the foreign material.

Treatment of Foreign Objects Stuck in the Esophagus of Cats

Esophageal foreign bodies, once diagnosed, should be removed immediately. An endoscopy procedure can diagnose an obstruction, and can also be used to remove the object with special tools attached to the end of the scope.

Forceps, or medical tweezers, can be used at the end of the endoscopy tube to grasp the object or material and remove it through the mouth. If endoscopy is possible to remove the obstruction, it is the preferred method, since it is the least invasive and provides for the quickest recovery.

Often, endoscopy is not able to remove the object but can be used to push the obstructive material into the stomach. If surgery is needed to remove a foreign body obstruction, it is safer to remove the object from the stomach than the esophagus.

Some foreign materials, such as bones, can be pushed into the stomach, where they can be digested. In that case, surgical removal might not be necessary. Surgery would also be indicated if there is a tear or perforation in the esophagus from the foreign object.

How Much Does It Cost to Remove a Foreign Object From a Cat’s Esophagus

Veterinary medical bills are highly variable, depending on the cost of living in your area and where the procedure is being performed. A basic endoscopy to remove the obstruction with no residual effects to the esophagus, including x-rays and anesthesia, can cost $800-$1,500.  

If, after the endoscopy procedure, it is determined that your cat needs surgery to repair the esophagus or to remove the obstruction from the gastrointestinal tract, the estimated cost would increase to $1,000-$3,000.

If the esophagus is torn and your cat requires extensive surgery and medical care, the cost could be $5,000 or more.

Recovery and Management of Foreign Objects Stuck in the Esophagus of Cats

Recovery time after an esophageal foreign body removal procedure is dependent on the severity of the obstruction—partial or complete, simple or complicated, mouth/stomach or esophagus removal.

If your cat has an uncomplicated endoscopy procedure where the obstruction is removed by mouth and no effects are noted in the esophagus, then recovery time is much shorter than if abdominal or thoracic (between the neck and the abdomen) surgery is needed. Your vet will likely provide medications after the procedure to help decrease any inflammation or pain associated with the previous obstruction.

If your cat undergoes surgery or if they were not eating prior to or post-procedure, it is typically necessary for them to remain hospitalized until fully recovered. It is recommended that cats eat soft food until the esophagus has completely healed. This can be accomplished by feeding canned food or softening the dry kibble with water.

Esophageal stricture formation is the most common complication associated with an esophageal foreign body obstruction. An esophageal stricture is when scar tissue forms along the wall of the esophagus, causing a narrowing of the tube. Sometimes a recheck endoscopy is required one to two weeks after removal of the obstruction to ensure that a stricture is not developing.

Foreign Objects Stuck in the Esophagus of Cats FAQs

How do you know if something is stuck in a cat’s esophagus?

Other than seeing your cat swallow or ingest something that they should not, these are the symptoms that might indicate an esophageal obstruction.

  • Drooling

  • Continuous swallowing

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Extension of the head and neck

  • Gagging

  • Regurgitation

  • Vomiting

  • Decreased or lack of appetite

  • Depression

  • Inability to settle down, restlessness

  • Trouble breathing

How long can a foreign object stay in a cat?

When something is ingested by your cat, it usually takes 12-24 hours to move through the entire digestive tract. Some objects, however, can take much longer—even months! When an object is too big to progress through the digestive tract, it causes an obstruction. An object that causes an obstruction will remain in your cat’s body until it is removed medically or surgically.

Featured Image: iStock/Jonathan Austin Daniels


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