By Dr. Ellen Friedman, DVM
I have an old high school friend who became a snooty Park Avenue gastroenterologist (not really snooty, but I tease him because of the location of his practice). Every now and then we talk about the odds and ends that patients ingest, and marvel at how similar those things can be.
GIFB, or gastrointestinal foreign bodies, can range from the banal — a squeaky dog toy — to the unbelievable — a set of door hinges.
In human children and young pets, ingestion of nonfood items isn’t too startling. Puppies and kids put mostly anything in their mouths, and sometimes the swallowing reflex takes over, with dramatic outcomes. Kittens are less likely culprits, but still can get into big trouble at times.
GIFB separate into linear and nonlinear types. String ingestion (as well as thread, dental floss, tinsel, etc.) is more common in cats, with sometimes disastrous results. If a length of string gets anchored in the mouth or stomach, the rest of the string that passes into the intestines acts like a saw, cutting through the wall and causing an often fatal peritonitis.
This is why your vet will remind you to put away sewing and knitting kits, keep tinsel out of your house at the holidays, and be careful with twist ties. Sometimes sewing needles are attached to thread; you can only imagine.
Solid objects can range from toys to buttons, coins, and anything else a cat can find around the house. My first cat opened a dresser drawer, took out a ring, and was about to swallow it when I intervened.
Some cats have a fondness that reaches compulsion for plastic bags and packing tape. A patient of mine had three surgeries, one when she was 15 years old, to retrieve plastic bags from her intestinal tract. The owner asked if we offered a “repeat offender” discount. Many owners tell me that they have to immediately discard dry cleaner bags — their cats make a beeline for these bags.
Surgery is often the only option to save a GIFB cat’s life. If the procedure is performed early on, all goes well. If the cat is already very ill, surgery becomes more complicated. Sometimes partial lengths of bowel have to be removed, which can be extremely dangerous. However, the outcome is usually good, with return to health in a short period of time.
Dr. Ellen Friedman is in general practice at Newburgh Veterinary Hospital and All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in New Paltz.