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Foreign Body in Cats (Respiratory)

By: Dr. Bari Spielman

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A respiratory foreign body is the inhalation of material that becomes lodged in any part of the respiratory tract, especially the nose, throat, trachea and bronchi, which are the large passages in the lung.

Respiratory foreign bodies are caused by inhaling objects small enough to enter the respiratory tract, but too large to pass beyond that point. Less common causes involve movement of foreign material into the respiratory tract from areas within the body, such as through the esophagus.

Hunting breeds are prone to grass foreign bodies due to repeated exposure during exercise. Puppies aspirate foreign bodies associated with play. Young animals that are teething or older animals with poor dentition are prone to teeth foreign bodies. Foreign bodies such as needles, fishhooks, bones, and grass awns (foxtails) are most common.

What to Watch For

In patients with nasal foreign bodies:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Head-shaking
  • Nose-pawing and nosebleeds

    In patients with pharyngeal foreign bodies:

  • Odd or exaggerated movement of the tongue
  • Gagging
  • Pawing at the face and mouth
  • Salivation
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Halitosis (bad breath)

    In patients with tracheal foreign bodies:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Retching
  • Wheezing
  • Cyanosis (blue color to the gums)
  • Fainting

    In patients with bronchial foreign bodies:

  • Coughing
  • Respiratory distress
  • Fever
  • Anorexia
  • Depression

    Diagnosis

    A thorough oral and nasal examination may be diagnostic in patients with nasal or pharyngeal foreign bodies.

  • A baseline complete blood count (CBC), biochemical profile and urinalysis is recommended on these patients

  • X-rays of the chest and neck

  • Skull/nasal radiographs

  • Computed tomography imaging (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be helpful in some cases

  • Rhinoscopy, or a scope of the nasal cavity

  • Tracheoscopy (evaluation of the trachea) or bronchoscopy (evaluation of the bronchi)

  • Rhinotomy, or cutting into the nasal cavity

    Treatment

  • Manually removing a nasal or pharyngeal foreign body may be curative.

  • Tracheoscopy or bronchoscopy and associated foreign body retrieval may be curative.

  • Surgery to remove foreign bodies may be necessary for objects that are not retrievable by scoping, and/or foreign objects that have migrated into the lung.

  • Antibiotic therapy may be helpful in controlling secondary infection.

    Home Care

    Early detection and removal is the key to recovery. Administer all medication and return for follow up as directed by your veterinarian.

    Cats and dogs with respiratory foreign bodies often carry an excellent prognosis for full recovery. In some cases, such as with grass awns or splintered sticks, foreign bodies may escape detection and result in chronic lung disease, and/or may migrate through the body and cause severe complications and sometimes death.

    Environment is the most important preventative for most respiratory foreign bodies. Toys, sticks, and other objects should be chosen or allowed with extreme caution and judgment.

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