You shall not pass: When pets eat the inedible

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It must be weird to live in a world where literally every single thing might be food, but I’m pretty sure that’s the one that many animals inhabit. There seems to be no limit to what our pets are willing to swallow, nor does there seem to be much capacity to learn from past mistakes. I mean, I suppose I can imagine a circumstance in which one might accidentally swallow a golf ball. We all make mistakes. But to accidentally swallow six more before calling it quits? Was the first one not sufficiently uncomfortable to suggest it was a bad idea? Veterinarians refer to this habit as “dietary indiscretion,” because “eating stupid things” sounds unprofessional.

Luckily, what our pets lack in sense, they frequently deliver in peristaltic prowess. With surprising regularity, they seem capable of flushing these sorts of things out one end or the other. Unfortunately, even their intestinal fortitude has limits, and now and then something is bound to get stuck halfway. When it happens, animals usually become unable to hold down food and water, vomiting everything back up. Most are painful in the belly, and in time, the affected portion of intestine can suffer terrible damage unless the offending item is removed surgically. I’ve recovered all sorts of things from animals’ intestines through the years, ranging from acorns to sewing needles. But there are a few things I’ve removed so many times that they deserve particular mention.

Clothing tops the list, without a doubt. Dogs are frequently obsessed with socks and underwear, and I’ve lost count of how many tattered scraps of tighty-whities and lingerie I’ve had to fish out of intestines. Fabric of any kind is a hazard to pets when swallowed. It is slow to digest, and its texture encourages it to stick fast to the wall of the gut. Worse, it frequently traps bits of other things, so it’s not uncommon for these obstructions to be horrid conglomerations of cloth, leaves, plastic, and whatever else was lying around. Short version? Keep that laundry off the floor, and be especially mindful if you have kids. Those adorable tiny socks are just begging to become dog food.

Corn cobs are a strong second-place contender. They look like they’re the perfect size and shape to toss to a playful dog at the family grill-out, and they probably taste good. Win win! Well, until the dog snaps it in half and swallows a huge chunk. Corn cobs are an intestine’s nightmare—perfectly cylindrical with a high-friction corrugated surface. It’s like they were specifically designed to block bowels.

Toys are a frustrating addition to the list, seeing as the entire point of them is to be given to your pets. But there’s no such thing as an indestructible toy (no matter what the package says), and I’ve found plenty of half-eaten Kongs, fractured tennis balls, and shredded rope toys clogging up the plumbing. Every animal is different, and some do better with different toys than others. Take time to learn your own pets’ habits, and don’t leave them unattended with anything until you’re satisfied that they aren’t likely to eat it rather than play with it.

String takes the final spot, not just because of its frequency, but because of its vicious behavior once ingested. As the intestine contracts in an effort to move string downstream, it accomplishes the opposite, climbing up the string instead. As waves of contractions keep trying to get the job done, the gut bunches up like an accordion. Meanwhile the string gets pulled taut, and begins to saw through the wall of the intestine. It drives me crazy to see the classic image of a cat playing with a ball of yarn, because I’ve seen first-hand what it can do to their insides.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If something is small enough to fit down an animal’s throat (and sometimes even if you swear it isn’t), that might be exactly where it’s headed. Intestinal obstructions are nasty business, and no amount of planning or caution can prevent all of them. Animals will be animals. But knowing what sorts of objects pose the greatest risk can give you a head start in pet-proofing your home.