If your dog develops an upset stomach it’s important to rule out a blockage. If your dog is regurgitating or vomiting a lot lately and your dog has a reputation for eating foreign items or a recent history of potentially swallowing bones, suspect to be dealing with a stomach blockage.
Also known as an obstruction, as the name implies, a blockage takes place when a foreign item blocks the dog’s esophagus, stomach or intestines, preventing the passage of food. The foreign objects are usually items a dog cannot digest (eg. Rocks, plastic) are slowly digested ( eg. bones) or are too large to pass. Not always the blockage is caused by ingested items, in some cases they may stem from an intessusception (the inversion of an intestinal section into another), polyps, and in older dogs blockages can also be caused by masses.
Can My Dog’s Upset Stomach be a Blockage?
Dogs eat the most strange things, and blockages are a possibility due to the dog’s relatively large esophagus that allows them to swallow foreign objects that are larger than what can pass through the intestines, explains veterinarian Kris Ann Fazio. The symptoms of a blockage mimic the symptoms of an upset stomach in dogs, and they sometimes may be subtle at first. Vomiting is the most common sign of a blockage in dogs but other symptoms suggesting a blockage include nausea, regurgitation, loss of appetite, lethargy, and some characteristic signs such as stretching, assuming the prayer position, abdominal swelling, diarrhea and straining to defecate. Not all dogs display all these symptoms and characteristic signs. Vomiting that’s repeated may suggest a complete blockage; whereas, occasional, intermittent vomiting may suggest a partial blockage that involves a freely movable object. It’s important when seeing the vet to describe whether your dog is vomiting or regurgitating and differentiate the two as this can make a difference in the diagnosis and lead to a faster diagnosis.
Blockages of the Dog’s Esophagus
A dog with a blockage in the esophagus has a foreign object lodged in the esophagus. Common items known for causing blockages here are bones such as steak bones, chicken bones and pork chop bones. Sometimes, fish hooks, needles, wood and pieces of rawhide may get lodged here as well. Affected dogs are usually drooling, gagging, swallowing repeatedly and regurgitating shortly after eating solid foods. These dogs are typically not vomiting since the food doesn’t make it down to the stomach. Left untreated, affected dogs may start losing weight and become lethargic. Complications include esophageal perforations, esophageal strictures and aspiration pneumonia.
Thoracic radiographs may help reveal the problem. Prompt emergency treatment is needed as the longer a blockage takes place in the esophagus, the more the risks for complications to arise such as aspiration pneumonia, perforation and bronchoesophageal fistulas, explains Rance K. Sellon, a board-certified veterinarian specializing in internal medicine. Treatment often involves using an endoscope to retrieve the foreign object. If retrieval is difficult, the vet may attempt to push the object into the stomach, where in the case of a bone, the stomach acids will remove minerals from the bone and allow passage through the intestinal tract without the need for surgery. Esophagotomy, an incision made into the esophagus, is used as a last resort as this surgery carries the risk for complications due to the difficulty in healing the esophagus.
Blockages of the Dog’s Stomach
A dog with a blockage in the stomach will often be vomiting because the foreign object will be blocking the passage for food. The vomiting may be frequent as in the case of a complete blockage or more sporadic as in the case of a partial blockage. Again, it’s important to differentiate the vomiting from regurgitation. If the dog is regurgitating, the blockage is likely in the esophagus and the dog needs thoracic x-rays, if the dog is vomiting, the blockage is likely in the stomach or intestines and the dog needs abdominal x-rays. Foreign objects in the stomach must be removed quickly, as long-term they may lead to gastric lacerations, ulcers, erosions and even gastric perforations. A foreign item stuck in the stomach can be attempted to be retrieved through endoscopy, and if this is not feasible, gastrotomy, an incision into the stomach, may be needed for removal. Common foreign items that cause stomach blockages are balls which are too big to make it through the pylorus and narrower intestines, but in puppies even marbles, coins, stones and bottle caps may not be able to exit the stomach.
Blockages of the Intestines
I would be less worried if a dog was vomiting up whatever he ingested shortly after ingestion, compared to starting vomiting in 2 or 3 days- “Vomiting down the road could indicate an obstruction.” ~Dr. Justine Spencer
How is a Blockage Diagnosed?
A blockage is diagnosed based on the dog’s history, physical examination findings and x-ray results. X-rays are often the first test the vet will conduct as this will often reveal the problem. Blockages of the stomach are quite evident as foreign objects appear more opaque compared to food contents. Blockages of the small intestine are noticeable because of the presence of intestinal contents which are unable to pass (ileus) causing the small intestines to appear dilated near the obstruction. However, it must be considered that x-rays also have their limitations as some types of foreign bodies may not be readily recognizable through x-rays (like a plastic bag) and further diagnostic tests may be needed. In more complicated cases, more radiographs, a barium study, an ultrasound or exploratory surgery may be needed.
Treatment for Dog Blockages
When the presence of a blockage has been confirmed, depending on its location, treatment may vary. In some cases, a wait and see approach may be suggested in hopes the item passes on its own with x-rays verifying its movement, but in many cases, the most common treatment is surgery. If the ingestion was recent (within 2 hours) and the vet deems there are no risks, the vet may suggest to induce vomiting. For small items such as a small piece of cloth or bone fragments, mineral oil may help the items pass through the stomach, explains veterinarian Race Foster; however, this won’t work for larger items like balls. Another option suggested by Dr. Gary is to offer a high-fiber diet every 4 to 6 hours.
There are various types of surgery that may be conducted based on where the blockage is located. The most common surgeries are gastrotomy (a surgical incision into the stomach), enterotomy (a surgical incision into the intestine) and, in cases of severely devitalized intestines, intestinal resection, or anastomosis (connecting two ends of an intestine after a portion has been removed) may be needed.
Prognosis of Dog Obstructions
Prognosis for dog blockages tends to vary, depending on various factors. The earlier treatment is sought, the better. One of the main threats after surgery is peritonitis which may set in when the stomach or intestines don’t heal and leak, something generally caused improper surgical technique. This can be for a good part prevented by using meticulous care in suturing using best materials and flushing the abdomen. Generally, the stomach is less likely to leak after surgery compare to the intestine.
The part of the intestine that’s affected may also play a role in prognosis expectations. When large portions of the ileum are removed this can be a problem as it’s the final part of the intestine where nutrients are absorbed and may lead to malabsorption and what is known as “short bowel syndrome,” whereas, it’s less problematic if the part removed is from the jejunum as here little absorption takes place. Further aggravating factors are blockages involving toxic materials such as zinc pennies minted after 1982 and small disk batteries.
Fortunately, most surgeries for dog blocked bowels resolve without any major complications. Most pets return to eating within 1 to 2 days and the affected dogs start feeling significantly better.
Dogs who are subject to repeated surgeries due to blockages are also at risk for further blockages since the intestines may narrow with repeated surgeries. For this reason, it’s important for owners of dogs who ingest foreign objects to prevent future occurrences.