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Get the Facts About Bowel Obstruction in Dogs

Dogs are notorious for eating or swallowing things they shouldn’t … which can cause bowel obstructions! Here’s what pup parents need to know about bowel obstruction in dogs.

Jennifer Lesser  |  Sep 19th 2018


Most dogs simply can’t resist the allure of an open garbage can, or deny their natural canine instincts to devour plush toys. But, unfortunately, if Fido manages to snatch a leftover chicken bone or plays a little too rough with his squeaky toys, it can lead to a bowel obstruction: a blockage of the GI tract that prevents food and blood flow to the bowels and causes your four-legged friend a great deal of pain. Let’s learn more about bowel obstruction in dogs — and how to handle a bowel obstruction in dogs.

Causes of Bowel Obstruction in Dogs

A puppy on a grass green area, squatting / pooping.

What causes bowel obstruction in dogs? Photography © DieterMeyrl | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

“Bowel obstruction in dogs is most often a result of indiscretion,” says Dr. Taylor Howard, DVM, of University Veterinary Hospital and Diagnostic Center in Utah. “Dogs can and will often swallow objects that are too big to pass through the entire intestinal tract.”

The items that pose the most risk? Pieces of clothing (because what dog doesn’t love gnawing on a pair of stinky socks?) or chunks of toys that accidentally break off during play. “Toys should be tried and tested, and trusted not to have small pieces that can be consumed,” Dr. Howard adds.

According to Dr. Brian J. Bourquin, DVM, veterinarian and owner of Boston Veterinary Clinic, other common causes of bowel obstruction in dogs include corn cobs, acorns, pieces of bone and fruit pits, as well as plastic bags, diapers and even feminine hygiene products.

How to Prevent Bowel Obstruction in Dogs

It may be impossible to stop your dog from wanting to munch on anything he finds on the ground, but for pet parents, he says the key to preventing bowel obstruction in dogs is thinking like a dog — particularly if you have a puppy at home.

“Puppies explore the world with their mouths, so the first thing you need to do is get on your hands and knees and locate and secure all those possible dangers, such as locking the lid on your garbage can,” Dr. Bourquin advises. “And when walking your dog, it’s not the time to be playing on your phone — your dog is going to spot that chicken bone three blocks before you do.”

Of course, bowel obstruction in dogs can happen at any age. “Other than not allowing your dog to chew on animal bones, my number one piece of advice is know your dog — some dogs can chew on a stuffed animal for three years without any issues, and others will destroy it in five minutes,” Dr. Bourquin says.

How to Tell if Your Dog Has a Bowel Obstruction

If you don’t happen to catch your pooch in the act of raiding your trash can or laundry hamper — as is most often the case — you might get clued into the fact that your dog swallowed something he shouldn’t have if he is vomiting or retching or straining to defecate.

Your dog may also be lethargic, and show signs of a painful or tense abdomen. “Some pets will grunt and have a lot of gas when the abdomen is pressed upon,” Dr. Howard explains.

Dr. Bourquin notes that if your dog is continuing to eat normally but not passing stool, that’s a clear indication that a bowel obstruction in dogs might be at play. “Vomiting is always the first clue, but if your dog is either having diarrhea — or not passing stool at all — that can also indicate an obstruction,” he says.

Treating Bowel Obstruction in Dogs

Once your veterinarian rules out conditions like pancreatitis, Dr. Howard explains that treatment for bowel obstruction in dogs may include supportive care with continuous IV fluid therapy, pain management, correction of electrolyte imbalances, and GI supportive medications such as anti-nausea and protective antacids. “If the cause was not thought to be digestible or passable with this approach, then surgical removal through a ventral mid-line incision is needed to identify the obstruction,” he explains.

If caught early enough, your veterinarian may be able to induce vomiting to help your pet regurgitate whatever he or she ate before it has the chance to pass into the intestines and get stuck. In some cases, an endoscopy can also be performed in an attempt to retrieve the item. “A radiograph may be used to spot dense items like rocks, coins and bones, but if your dog managed to eat a plastic bag of piece of diaper, it may only show up on an ultrasound,” Dr. Bourquin says.

What Is the Prognosis for Bowel Obstruction in Dogs?

The prognosis for a bowel obstruction in dogs is determined by how much time passed before treatment, and if the intestines got damaged in the process.

Dr. Howard explains that if your veterinarian has reason to believe that the intestines were perforated due to lack of blood flow and ulceration, then segments of the intestines will need to be removed … and the prognosis becomes much more serious.  “The window of opportunity is really within 24 to 48 hours,” he warns. “Please do not hesitate to call your veterinarian if you’re concerned.”

Thumbnail:  Photography © GeorgePeters | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

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