Oesophageal foreign bodies in dogs

Some dogs are very greedy and any dog that thinks it is under threat of having a tasty bit of food taken away from it may swallow something without chewing properly. Dogs that scavenge are at particular risk of picking up and swallowing something they should not eat. Often scavenging merely results in an upset tummy but sometimes a piece of foreign material can become lodged in the throat. This is a potentially very serious condition and if you think your pet may have something stuck in its throat you should contact your vet immediately.

Any dog can get something stuck in its oesophagus. However, the dogs most at risk are greedy dogs or dogs that like to scavenge because they have access to things that are more likely to cause problems. Small terriers also appear to be more at risk and this is partly due to their size, meaning that chop bones are a perfect fit for their oesophagus (whereas larger breed dogs may get away with swallowing the same bone).

The oesophagus is the tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach down which food, liquids and saliva pass after swallowing. It is a muscular tube and quite stretchy so that if larger objects are swallowed the oesophagus stretches out to accommodate them. However, there are a number of places along the oesophagus where the oesophagus is narrowed and larger objects may become stuck.

In dogs the most common foreign body is a piece of bone, rawhide chew or toys. The pieces of bone from chops, which may become wedged across the oesophagus, are a particular problem in smaller dogs such as West Highland White terriers. You should never allow your dog to get access to cooked bones.

Another common type of foreign body is a fish hook. Dogs may pick up and eat baited fish hooks and the hook can catch in the wall of the oesophagus. In many cases the fishing line is still attached to the hook and may be visible in the mouth. Never try to pull on line or string that your dog has swallowed but instead take your pet straight to the vet. If there is a hook embedded in the oesophagus and you pull on this the barbs may tear the oesophagus causing serious damage.

Immediately after swallowing something that has become stuck dogs are usually very distressed. They will often be gagging and retching but usually don’t produce anything except some frothy white saliva. Dogs may be very restless and may paw at their mouth. Most dogs with something stuck in their throat will not want to eat and if they do will not be able to swallow. Some make repeated gulping movements.

If the object is not completely blocking the oesophagus it may be present for several days before other signs are noticed. These dogs may still be able to swallow liquids. Regurgitation of food after eating may occur and you may notice a foul smell on your dog’s breath.

Signs of respiratory disease such as coughing may be present, and, if the oesophagus becomes torn, signs of generalised illness such as depression, high temperature and a reluctance to bend the neck (due to pain) may be seen.

Your vet will probably suspect that your dog has something stuck in its throat from what you describe of the history. In order to confirm what is there and where it is stuck your vet will want to take an X-ray of your dog. Blood samples may be taken to see if there are any effects of dehydration and intravenous fluids may be given.

Once the foreign object has been identified it can usually be removed without surgery but this can be a tricky procedure and your vet may want to send your pet to a specialist to perform the procedure.

If the foreign body has been present for sometime there may be damage to the wall of the oesophagus.

Foreign bodies can be removed from the oesophagus in a number of ways:

  • Removal from the mouth by passing a tube through the mouth and grabbing hold of the foreign body and pulling it out.
  • Pushing the object down the oesophagus into the stomach and then operating on the stomach to remove the object from there.
  • In exceptional cases the object is completely wedged and cannot be moved up or down. In these cases surgical removal from the oesophagus is the only option. Surgery is also required if there is a tear in the wall of the oesophagus. This is the most serious situation due to the high risk of infection and shock.

Following removal of the object your pet will be quite sore for several days and will need nursing care at home or in a veterinary hospital. It is likely that they will also need a variety of medication to make them more comfortable and to reduce the risk of long term damage to the oesophagus.

The biggest risk is that the wall of the oesophagus may be damaged by the foreign body or torn when it is removed. However, long term problems can also occur as the oesophagus heals.

In most cases, minor damage and inflammation of the wall of the oesophagus heals quickly. However, more severe damage and tearing of the muscle layers takes longer to heal and more scar tissue forms. Large amounts of scar tissue can create a permanently narrowed area called a stricture that is unable to stretch to allow food past when the dog swallows. This can take several months to form. Signs that a stricture has formed normally include regurgitation of food, less often liquids.

It is not possible to guarantee that your dog will never swallow anything that can become stuck in its throat. However, there are a number of wise precautions you can take.

  • Never feed your dog cooked bones and never give your dog a bone that it could potentially swallow whole.
  • Ideally, avoid rawhide chews. If you do offer them, remove them from your dog once they have chewed them down to a size at which they might swallow them.
  • Make sure that all toys are large enough that they cannot be swallowed whole and are strong enough that they cannot be chewed into pieces by your pet.
  • Watch your pet closely when out for exercise to ensure they are not scavenging along the way.

An oesophageal foreign body is a potentially very serious problem for your pet. Long term outcomes are very dependent on early treatment so if you are worried that your pet may have swallowed something that has become stuck you should immediately get advice from your vet.

If you have any concerns about your dog contact your own vet for further advice.