Removing foreign objects from the gastrointestinal (GI) tracts of cats is, unfortunately, a common procedure. Cats like to eat long, string-like objects that can cause obstructions in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Here’s a list of common household items that are dangerous to your cat if eaten:
Christmas tinsel and Easter grass
Never let your cat play with these objects or objects like them.
Your cat is not safe from the risks of intestinal blockage until they are cleared by a veterinarian. Surgery to remove the foreign object is the most likely outcome. Surgery times can range from 1 hour for a simple foreign object removal to up to 3 hours for severe cases.
The price of these surgeries and subsequent hospitalization varies greatly, depending on the severity of the condition, the stability of the patient, and the qualifications of the veterinarian performing the surgery. Prices can range from $2000 for simple obstruction removal to $8000 for very sick, septic patients.
Types of Intestinal Blockages in Cats
Foreign objects can cause three types of cat intestinal blockages: complete, partial, and linear. These blockages can happen anywhere along the GI tract.
A complete obstruction is when an object blocks the passage of all material through a cat’s GI tract.
Complete obstruction can occur anywhere in the intestine, but it is most common where there are sphincters (muscles that control the openings of the GI tract) or constrictions (narrow parts).
A complete intestinal blockage in cats can cause the following symptoms:
Lethargy (moving slowly, sluggish)
Seeing a string coming out of the anus
Behavioral changes such as hiding and aggression
Abdominal pain when being picked up
Because complete intestinal blockage is so serious, take your cat to the vet right away if you suspect your cat has eaten something and you see these symptoms.
Partial obstructions of the GI tract allow limited passage of materials through a cat’s intestines, which can cause all the same symptoms of complete obstruction, or no symptoms at all.
As the foreign object moves through your cat’s GI tract, the GI tract becomes irritated. When the foreign object gets lodged in the intestines, it can cause pain and discomfort, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Alternatively, your cat might not show any symptoms. If this is the case but you know your cat ingested something they shouldn’t have, take them to the vet.
All obstructions of the GI tract become more serious when the obstruction migrates into the GI tissue, causing ulceration (open sores) and the possibility of bacteria in the intestines escaping into the main bloodstream.
When this happens, sepsis can occur, which is a life-threatening response to infection that causes organ and tissue dysfunction. Without immediate emergency attention, sepsis can be fatal.
Take your cat to the vet right away if you suspect your cat has eaten something and they are experiencing pain, drooling, discomfort, diarrhea, not eating for over 24 hours, or vomiting.
Linear obstructions, caused by long, thin (linear) objects, can act just like partial obstructions with no serious changes to your cat.
As the intestines try to move the string-like material through the GI tract, continued peristalsis (normal movement of the GI tract) will cause constriction and tightening inside your cat’s bowels. The bowels will start to bunch or “accordion up” along the linear foreign body with continued tension.
The intestines can lose oxygen and begin to suffocate, and/or the foreign body can begin to act like a saw and slice through the intestinal walls. When this happens, the contents of your cat’s intestines can leak into your their abdomen. This may not occur for days to weeks after ingestion.
Intestinal Blockage Surgery in Cats
When the veterinarian confirms via abdominal ultrasound that a foreign object is in the stomach only, your cat will need surgical removal of the object to ensure it does not pass into the small intestines.
If the object makes it through, the intestines have a smaller diameter, which creates a higher risk of complete obstruction and sepsis, if left untreated.
If your vet is sure that the foreign object is only in the stomach, they might use endoscopy to remove the object, which is a less invasive procedure involving a flexible tube and camera. The benefit of this procedure is that it’s nonsurgical with faster recovery times.
What Happens During Intestinal Blockage Surgery?
Advanced diagnostics such as abdominal X-rays and ultrasound will be used to investigate the exact location of the object and the severity of the obstruction. For example, if severe dilation (expansion) of the small intestine or free fluid is noted in the abdomen, then the cat is considered more unstable, and sometimes their prognosis changes.
Once located, the object can be removed through surgery. The procedure itself is called “abdominal exploratory,” which means that the surgeon explores your cat’s entire abdomen. Several methods can be used to remove the foreign body depending on the health of the stomach and small intestines.
In cases where the tissue appears healthy, a gastrotomy (incision into the stomach) and/or enterotomy (incision into the intestine) is performed to remove the foreign object. Sometimes in cases of linear foreign body obstructions, several enterotomies need to be performed to completely remove the material.
If possible, vets prefer to remove the object from your cat’s stomach instead of the intestines. The stomach is easier to access and heals faster than other GI tissues. Also, in specialty veterinary practices, endoscopy is a good option for trying to remove the object without surgery.
In some cases, the foreign object may need to be removed from the small intestine. In this surgery, postoperative risks are higher due to larger bacterial counts and potential damage to the tissue.
In more severe cases of obstruction and/or perforation, a portion of the intestine is surgically removed. This procedure has a higher risk for postoperative complications.
Aftercare for Cat Obstruction Surgery
If your cat’s intestinal blockage is removed through endoscopy, the procedure is usually outpatient.
However, if your cat has surgery to remove a simple blockage, they will spend a night or two in the hospital after the surgery is complete.
In cases of a septic abdomen caused by the perforation of a foreign body, or in cases where some of the intestines require surgical removal, hospitalization can be 5-7 days or longer.
Your vet will monitor your cat for sepsis, which is a life-threatening response to infection, and bacteria leakage from the intestine. Typically, your cat will be given intravenous fluids, pain medications, antibiotics, and nutritional support during their hospital stay.
In more severe cases, blood product transfusions, blood pressure stabilizers, and feeding tubes are required for support.
Your veterinarian will also discuss home care with you before hospital discharge.
After you bring your cat home, monitor your cat closely.
If you see any of these signs, take your cat to the vet for immediate emergency care:
Any sudden changes in behavior – hiding, aggression, lethargy (moving slowly, sluggish)
Not eating or drinking, or eating and drinking less than normal
Liquid or bloody diarrhea (some amount of diarrhea is normal after removing an intestinal obstruction)
Cherry red or white-colored gums, which are signs of dehydration and/or blood loss
Medications After Cat Obstruction Surgery
Continue all medications that are prescribed by your veterinarian, even if you think your cat is feeling better.
Antibiotics and pain management are critical. If you are having a hard time giving the medications to your cat, ask your veterinarian about other formulations, such as injections, compounded formulations, or topicals for the ear and gums.
Incision Care After Cat Obstruction Surgery
Monitoring the incision daily is also very important.
If you see any of the following signs, contact your vet ASAP to avoid infection:
Opening of the incision
A bodysuit or E-collar should be worn at all times.
Feeding After Cat Obstruction Surgery
Your veterinarian may have a strict feeding schedule for your cat, depending on the type of procedure that was required.
A feeding tube may have also been placed while under anesthesia to ensure your cat receives adequate amounts of nutrition and water. You can also give certain medications through this tube.
Speak with your veterinarian about feeding tube guidelines and how to manage and care for the tube. They will give you specific instructions about what food to feed.
Water is often added to the food and put into a blender to make a gruel consistency. Your veterinarian will calculate the exact amount of calories per feeding that your cat requires, which will be slowly increased over the first few days.
Your vet will also give instructions on how often the wrap for the feeding tube needs to be changed and what to do if the tube becomes clogged or dislodges. Feeding tubes are usually left in place until your cat starts eating full meals on their own. The tube is easily removed by the veterinarian, often without sedation, once the vet says it’s okay.