Gastrointestinal Blockage (GI Foreign Body Obstruction) in Cats

Key Takeaways

A gastrointestinal (GI) foreign body obstruction is the result of ingesting a foreign object that is not able to pass through the body naturally. 

• The blockage may be partial or complete

• GI blockage presents as poor appetite, continuous vomiting, lethargy, and diarrhea

Blockages can cause damage or perforation of the intestinal lining if left untreated which is life-threatening

• The location, material, and duration of obstruction play a large part in diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment

• Diagnostic imaging, endoscopy, and exploratory surgery may all be required to make a diagnosis

• Treatment often involves surgical removal of the object, then focuses on addressing any associated symptoms

• The prognosis of gastrointestinal blockages depends on the object, the extent of the damage, and whether any complications arose before, during, or after treatment

A Closer Look: What is GI Obstruction in Cats?

A foreign object can get lodged anywhere along the digestive system; around the base of the tongue, in the esophagus, the stomach, the intestine, or the colon. The object may get stuck in places where there is a narrowing, like the exit of the stomach, or simply lodged in a curve. The most common objects that cats swallow are linear bodies such as string, hair ties, tinsel, or dental floss. Other swallowed objects may include parts of plastic bags, toys, socks, and jewelry.

A GI blockage is considered an emergency as it can be life-threatening. Gastrointestinal blockages are common in cats, and they are most at risk of a foreign body obstruction when young, as their propensity to ingest non-food items is much higher.

If a cat swallows anything that is not a food item, it is best to seek medical attention as soon as possible. This urgency is especially true if it is a linear object, which is anything long and thin, similar to a string or rubber band. Cats are particularly prone to linear foreign bodies, as they enjoy playing with string and similar items. A linear foreign body obstructing the GI tract is a particularly serious situation. The linear body may cause the intestine to fold or bunch up, creating stress that leads to tearing of the intestinal wall.

Risk Factors

There are some complications that may arise alongside a gastrointestinal blockage. Some foreign bodies poke into the wall of the gastrointestinal tract, causing the intestinal contents to leak into the abdomen or chest cavity. This leaking results in peritonitis, an inflammation of the lining in the abdomen, which is a life-threatening condition that leads to sepsis. 

Symptoms associated with peritonitis are:

• Swelling of the abdomen • Collapse • Severe abdominal pain • Pale gums • Severe lethargy • Difficulty breathing

If the perforation is due to a linear foreign body, it often results in a very large tear, leading to increased leakage and widespread inflammation.  In cases where peritonitis has set in, prognosis is guarded.

Another possible complication is there are certain materials that are toxic when ingested, such as lead or old pennies. This can lead to toxicosis, which also presents as: 

Pale or yellow gumsDifficulty breathingVomitingDiarrheaSeizures • Incoordination • Blindness

Possible Causes

A GI blockage occurs when digesting food is unable to flow through the intestine properly. In most cases, the obstruction is due to an object getting stuck after being ingested.  Gastrointestinal obstructions can also occur from tumors pressing on the wall of the intestine, or thickening the wall of the intestine. In cats, the most common gastrointestinal tumor is lymphoma. Intussusception is another common cause of gastrointestinal obstruction, where the intestine telescopes in on itself.

Main Symptoms

The most common symptoms of gastrointestinal blockages are:

VomitingDiarrhea (possibly bloody) • Reduced appetite • Lethargy • Dehydration

• Yowling or growling when the abdomen is touched

Testing and Diagnosis

A foreign object blockage can be difficult to diagnose for a number of reasons. First, the associated symptoms are common to many other causes and conditions. Second, if the blockage is partial, there may be fewer symptoms or intermittent symptoms, which may suggest other conditions besides a blockage. Lastly, some materials do not appear on imaging, meaning that some objects cannot be seen without performing surgery. 

Initial tests are performed to rule out other possible conditions or causes. These tests include:

• Physical examination • Bloodwork • Diagnostic imaging

Some foreign bodies appear on diagnostic imaging, making diagnosis straightforward. If an object is suspected, but does not appear on imaging, an endoscopy may be performed if the object is thought to be located between the mouth and stomach. Colonoscopy is also an option if the object is thought to be in the colon. 

Another viable diagnostic tool is exploratory surgery. In many cases, time is of the essence, and there are life-threatening consequences to prolonged intestinal blockage. It can be difficult to locate and determine the size or number of objects externally without surgery. Surgical intervention also allows for immediate treatment if any objects are identified.

Steps to Recovery

If undiagnosed and untreated, symptoms will last until the blockage is resolved. It is possible for a foreign body obstruction to resolve without intervention, through either vomiting or passing the object through the intestine successfully. If this does not occur, surgical intervention is required to remove the object. In some cases, a section of intestine must be removed due to extensive tissue damage. 

After the object is removed, treatment focuses on supportive care, recovery, and addressing any complications that arose due to the presence of the foreign body. Prognosis depends on a number of elements; duration, location and degree of obstruction, and if there are complications rising from the material ingested. Cases that develop peritonitis or require a significant amount of intestine to be removed have a poorer prognosis.

Prevention

Gastrointestinal blockage is not contagious, however if there is material in the environment that is likely to cause a blockage, any other animals in the house are at risk as well. The ingested material and other potentially ingested material should be removed. GI blockage is best prevented by supervising animals at play, providing toys that are not likely to break or get chewed into pieces, and storing human food and food waste in sealed containers out of reach of pets.

Is GI Obstruction Common in Cats?

GI obstruction is common in cats, especially in younger cats who tend to chew on non-food items more regularly.

Typical Treatment

• Surgical removal of object • IV fluids • Antibiotics • Supportive care

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