Linear Foreign Bodies: Deadly Temptations

Feb 26, 2020

Linear Foreign Bodies: Deadly Temptations

Foreign body removal is one of the most common gastrointestinal (GI) surgeries performed at DVSC. Curious pets often eat things they shouldn’t as they explore their environment, or because an item seems irresistibly tasty. Unfortunately, these non-food objects can wreak havoc on your pet’s GI tract. In addition to causing severe inflammation, a foreign body can become lodged in your pet’s stomach or intestines, causing a life-threatening obstruction. Linear foreign bodies are particularly dangerous, as they can cause severe intestinal damage. 

What is a linear foreign body in a pet?

A linear foreign body is a string-like item that a pet has eaten. Both cats and dogs may ingest linear objects, although they attract cats in particular. Examples of linear foreign bodies include:

  • String
  • Yarn
  • Ribbon
  • Tape
  • Rope
  • Fabric strip
  • Christmas tree tinsel

Pets may steal a piece of discarded thread or yarn while you are sewing or working on a craft project, and ribbon is often pilfered from discarded gift wrap, presents left under the Christmas tree, or a balloon. 

Why are linear foreign bodies dangerous to pets?

When a pet ingests a string-like item, one end can become lodged, while peristalsis pushes the remaining length along the intestinal tract. Thread wrapping itself around a cat’s tongue base, or a cat eating a threaded needle that lodges in the tongue, are not uncommon. Since one end is tethered and cannot be passed, the intestines bunch up, or plicate, along the length of the linear foreign body. As the string tightens and the intestine repeatedly rubs against it, the intestinal wall can be cut, creating a perforation, or hole, and intestinal contents can leak into the abdominal cavity. The bacteria-laden material can quickly lead to life-threatening peritonitis and sepsis, which is a body-wide inflammatory response to infection. 

What are linear foreign body signs in pets?

When a linear foreign body causes intestinal plication, the signs are similar to other intestinal foreign bodies, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Dehydration
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • A string protruding from your pet’s anus

If your pet displays any of these signs, have her examined by your family veterinarian immediately. Never pull on a string sticking out of your pet’s anus, as the other end could be attached, and you can cause severe intestinal damage. A string-like item protruding from your pet’s anus also means she could be in serious danger, so take her to your family veterinarian immediately.

How are linear foreign bodies diagnosed in pets?

If your veterinarian suspects that your pet may have a linear foreign body, she may perform several tests to reach a diagnosis, which may include:

Diagnosing Linear Foreign Bodies in Pets

  • Blood work — Blood work can provide information such as whether your pet has an infection, or sepsis is affecting her organs.
  • X-rays — Abdominal X-rays can demonstrate a gas pattern that corresponds to air bubbles trapped in plicated intestines.

  • Ultrasound — If X-rays are suspicious, but do not confirm a linear foreign body, an ultrasound may be performed to examine the intestinal tract.

A thorough oral examination will also be performed to check under your pet’s tongue for a needle or string. 

How are linear foreign bodies in pets treated?

Since one end of a linear foreign body may be tethered, and the pet’s intestines are often plicated around the string, it cannot simply be pulled out. The only treatment for a linear foreign body is surgical removal through an intestinal incision, or enterotomy. Often, several enterotomies are required to remove the linear material’s entire length. If the intestine has been perforated, the damaged intestinal tissue may be repaired or removed. 

What is a pet’s prognosis after surgical removal of a linear foreign body?

A pet’s prognosis depends on whether an intestine has been perforated. If a string has caused intestinal plication without perforation, surgical removal should be curative. If perforation has occurred, however, the prognosis is serious to grave, due to bacterial contamination of the abdominal cavity and possible sepsis. Advanced care in a 24-hour critical care unit is required to support pets after surgery for the best chance of recovery; however, sepsis is a very serious diagnosis that can often be fatal.

If your family veterinarian has diagnosed a linear foreign body in your pet, the challenging surgery may require the advanced equipment and surgical expertise of a board-certified veterinary surgeon. Contact our surgical team to schedule an appointment or surgery.