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Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies in Cats

By: PetPlace Veterinarians

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Cats, like children, are curious animals and love to play. However, they also like to chew on their toys and, as a result, sometimes swallow harmful objects that can affect their health. It is important that you protect your kitty from ingesting dangerous foreign bodies.

A gastrointestinal foreign body refers to any material other than food that is eaten and that results in serious digestive problems. Foreign bodies can become lodged in the stomach and intestines creating an obstruction. Commonly ingested non-food items include toys, string, clothing and plastic. In fact, any household object your cat chews on can become a foreign body problem.

Cats of any age are susceptible to developing foreign body problems but this is most commonly seen in young cats less than 2 years of age. These youngsters are naturally curious and enjoy playing. Frequently, cats will play with string and yarn and unintentionally ingest it.

Although some smaller foreign bodies can pass through the gut without getting stuck and causing a problem, the larger pieces, and especially string, can result in serious gastrointestinal complications.

What You Should Watch for

Cats that have ingested a foreign object usually show signs of gastrointestinal upset. If your cat refuses to eat, begins vomiting, drooling or has abnormal bowel movements, contact your veterinarian. In some instances, you may notice a foreign object, such as a string, protruding from the rectum. Do not try to pull the object out - consult your vet.

Diagnosing a Foreign Body

Your veterinarian will begin by obtaining a complete and thorough medical history, including recent exposure or known chewing on foreign material. A physical examination will follow. If a foreign body is suspected, abdominal radiographs (x-rays) will be recommended. Most foreign objects can be confirmed on plain X-rays but a few elusive ones may require a dye material like barium in order for the foreign object to be diagnosed.

Since removal of most foreign bodies requires surgery, once a gastrointestinal foreign body is diagnosed, your veterinarian may order blood tests to assess the general health of your cat.


Most cats with a gastrointestinal foreign body obstruction have been vomiting or not eating for a period of time. This leads to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Your veterinarian will most likely want to hospitalize your cat and administer intravenous fluids prior to anesthesia. Once your cat is more stable, s/he will be anesthetized and prepared for surgery.

After sedation, your cat will have his mid abdomen shaved. An incision will be made along the center of the abdomen and the stomach and intestines examined for foreign material or obstructions. After localizing the foreign material, a small incision will be made in the stomach and/or intestine and the foreign material removed. In severe obstructions, multiple incisions may have to be made to remove the entire foreign object. This is especially true for string removal. If portions of the intestine have been damaged, sections of the intestine may need to be removed.

After the foreign body is removed, your veterinarian will suture the incision in the stomach and/or intestine as well as the body wall and skin.

After removal of the foreign material, your cat will continue to receive intravenous fluids until he is able to eat and drink without vomiting. Your veterinarian may prescribe medication for pain such as butorphanol as well as antibiotics to prevent infection.

Based on the severity of intestinal damage, your cat may be hospitalized for 2 to 5 days.

Surgical removal of foreign objects is a common procedure in veterinary medicine. During the surgery the intestines, as well as other abdominal organs, can be examined for damage or illness. Unfortunately, every surgery has negative aspects such as post-operative pain, potentially long hospital stays and possible infection. Surgery is the only treatment for intestinal obstruction so your veterinarian will take steps to either treat for or prevent some of the surgical complications.

At Home Care

Once your cat is able to eat and drink without vomiting, your veterinarian will send him home. Be sure to give all medication as prescribed by your veterinarian and periodically check the incision.

Sutures are generally removed in 7 to 10 days. Until then, do not allow your cat to lick or chew at the sutures – an Elizabethan collar may be necessary. You should also watch the incision for swelling or discharge. Your cat will need to be fed a bland diet for 2 to 3 days and gradually returned to a normal diet. Baby food and prescription bland diets are typically recommended. Contact your veterinarian if your cat refuses to eat or begins vomiting.

Preventative Care

The best way to prevent your cat from ingesting foreign bodies is to prevent access to objects that could be swallowed. Keep dangerous objects away from your kitty and allow him to chew only on toys that cannot be swallowed. Never let him play with string.

If you suspect that your cat may have ingested something that may not pass through his intestinal tract, contact your veterinarian. Waiting until your pet starts to vomit will make removal of the foreign material more difficult and costly.

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