While it’s more common for dogs to eat things they shouldn’t, it happens to cats too. Common and dangerous objects that can cause an obstruction are string, ribbon, or thread, or even hair ties and rubberbands.
Often a cat will pass (aka poop) one small object on their own, but sometimes, they can’t, and the object gets stuck in their stomach or intestines. Without treatment, foreign bodies can be fatal.
During this Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks talks about intestinal obstructions, and what can be done if your cat eats something they shouldn’t, or if you suspect they did.
Fostering and behavioral specialist Elizabeth "Liz" Ann co-hosted the call, and also discussed a second topic in relation to a customer question on how to work with cats that have experienced trauma.
Common Foreign Bodies in Cats
Foreign bodies are things cats eat that can’t pass through their stomach, small intestines, or colon (which is very rare, because if it reaches the colon they are usually in the clear, but not always). Usually dirt, litter, or grass is vomited or passed through and eliminated.
Common foreign bodies are string, yarn, thread, or pieces of carpet. Cats may not intentionally eat these materials, but because they often play with it, they end up swallowing it. Even if your cat has never shown interest in these objects, put them away when not in use. It isn’t worth the risk.
One of the first things a vet will do when it’s suspected a cat swallowed a foreign object is check their tongue. A string or thread can get wrapped around the base of their tongue, while the rest of it is down their throat and into the stomach.
The solution is not to cut the string, but instead to still go to surgery, but at least the cause is already known without further diagnostics. During surgery the vet will cut a piece of string out of their intestines and then cut the thread from their tongue.
Sometimes cats swallow plastics or small toys. Bones from rodents can also get stuck, so be careful and avoid feeding your cat anything with whole bones.
What happens when the intestines are blocked from a foreign body? Without surgery, it could be fatal. The cat won’t be able to eat and absorb nutrients and the normal bacteria in the intestines can go into the bloodstream and the cat could become septic. Also, if the object causes blood vessel restriction, intestinal tissue can become necrotic which can also lead to sepsis.
If you see a string sticking out from the backside, just wait and see if the cat can pass it. Do not pull the string because you could damage the intestines if it ends up being further up in the tract.
Also, dogs can get obstructions in their esophagus, and Dr. Brooks explained it’s possible for it to happen to a cat. Symptoms could be coughing or gagging, or even trouble breathing.
Don’t assume a cat will pass a foreign body, especially if you see no signs of it in their stool and if they’re displaying physicall symptoms. If you know your cat consumed something, seek medical attention.
Symptoms of a Foreign Body
Could include any of these symptoms:
- Vomiting - Unable to keep food and sometimes fluids down
- Lethargy and extreme weakness
- No wanting to eat
- Licking lips and drooling - Signs of nausea
- Pain in abdomen
- Weight loss
The reason for diagnostics is to avoid putting your cat through surgery unless it’s completely necessary.
If there are no visible signs in the mouth (like a string around their tongue), then the first step is to perform an X-ray. The cost depends on the clinic and your location, but it can vary from $150-300. Some vets will send it to a board certified radiologist to read and get a more specialized opinion.
If it’s unclear if the cat needs surgery, a cat may be given fluids and anti-nausea meds, and you’ll be asked to come back in 24 hours for another X-ray. Sometimes, the extra fluids help the obstruction move and the cat won’t need surgery.
When the X-ray isn’t clear, the next step is an abdominal ultrasound. This will pinpoint if there is an obstruction in the intestine. If it’s a focused ultrasound, it can be $100-150, but if it’s a broader ultrasound, it can run $400-500 (again, depending on your clinic and location).
When there is a foreign obstruction in the stomach, the surgery is pretty straight forward. A small incision is made in the stomach to remove it.
For obstructions in the small intestines, the vet has to look over them and cut out any intestines that don’t look healthy. It’s a serious surgery, with recovery time around 1-2 weeks and cost from $2,000-3,000. At a low-cost vet clinic, it could be as low as $1,000, but it depends on how complicated the surgery is.
In cases when the symptoms match a foreign body obstruction, but it can’t be located on an X-ray or ultrasound, it’s necessary to have an exploratory surgery. If it turns out to not be an obstruction, these surgeries sometimes discover tumors. If no obstruction or tumor is found, the vet will take biopsies and lymph nodes to send for analysis to find out why your cat is having symptoms that mirror an obstruction.
Can you see a tumor on an ultrasound?
Dr. Brooks: Yes, it’s visible on an ultrasound. But it’s possible the ultrasound isn’t available or the owner doesn’t want to invest in it before surgery.
One of my cats chewed on ribbons on a birthday package. He didn’t swallow it but he did get sick with colitis and it was terrible. Why did this happen? He was also given fluids and they helped.
Dr. Brooks: He could have ingested too much of the chemicals or dye on them which could have given him diarrhea. It’s amazing how sometimes injectable or subQ fluids help. I’ve also seen where cats have quite a bit of kitty litter in their intestines, probably from cleaning their paws, and fluids will help them pass it.
Liz: I’ve seen that happen with kittens, they seem to accidentally ingest kitty litter.
Dr. Brooks: Something else with kittens, they can get intussusception, where the intestines slide in on each other, and it can cause symptoms of an obstruction. Unless it corrects on its own, they need surgery to fix it. It’s most often from a large burden of parasites, which is another reason why it’s so important to deworm kittens.
Have you seen a lot of cats with obstructions? Is it common?
Dr. Brooks: I’ve seen it with string and pieces of plastic. It happens, yes, but it happens a lot less frequently than in dogs. It also usually occurs in a young cat, like less than five years.
Liz: I’ve had cats chew on the plastic used to package bulk water bottles, and it made them throw up.
Are some breeds more prone to obstructions?
Dr. Brooks: In dogs, yes. Labs are one of the more common breeds. Larger to medium sized breeds are more likely. Cat breeds, not necessarily.
If you give your cats cat grass, can that cause an obstruction?
Dr. Brooks: I’ve never seen it. I would think they’d have to gorge themselves on it, but even then they would probably just vomit it up.
Liz: I would also advise when you’re scooping the box to keep an eye on their stool. You might notice they’ve gotten into something in the house that you haven’t thought of by seeing it in their stool, and then you can make it inaccessible to them moving forward.
Dr. Brooks: If you see something in their poop, and they’re eating and have good energy, I’m not worried that there’s still an obstruction. You can get diagnostics to be 100% sure, but physical symptoms are a good indicator.
If they’ve eaten something, and we know they’ve eaten it, and it’s just hanging out in their stomach but they aren’t acting sick, do we do anything? It depends on what it is, but in those cases, we might say wait and see. We don’t want to cut them open if we don’t need to.
The biggest takeaway from this discussion is if your cat consumed something they shouldn’t, seek medical attention for them immediately. It could save their life.
Working with Traumatized Cats
Liz started by explaining some cats go through trauma and they are fine. If the cat goes through it at a young age and gets out of it at a young age, it increases the chance that they’ll recover. Trauma could be from neglect, abuse, or an accident. If the trauma happens throughout their young life, or early adulthood, before their brain matures, it can impact the brain.
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain responsible for fight or flight, and cats in neglect or abuse can be in a constantly aroused state to survive. Once a brain has matured, you can’t change it, but you can manage the behavior.
A cat through abuse or neglect can growl excessively and have dilated pupils in the absence of what you would think is a threat. It can be very confusing for the owner, because you think you’re taking care of the cat, feeding them and loving them, and the cat’s being nasty for no reason.
In reality, the cat is decompressing from their experience and they don’t know that they can trust you. It can take a really long time to build trust with those cats. Their instinct is telling them, “I need to survive…” and when they’re in fight or flight, they don’t even recognize you.
If they’re less than 10, you can definitely work with them behaviorally. When they are seniors, it’s going to be much more difficult because of how long they’ve lived their lives in this hyper-anxious state.
Things that can help a cat that’s been through trauma include:
- If you know something triggers your cat and it’s not something you can avoid, like something you do every day (ex. Running the garbage disposal) after you do that thing, don’t interact with them. Don’t try to touch or comfort them, Let them process in their own space and time, because those are the times when you’re at most risk for being injured.
- If they’re very aggressive and attacking you, and you’re committed to the cat, talk to your vet about some anti-anxiety meds. If they’re hard to pill, you can hide pills in lunch meat or chicken. It’s not cruel to look at those options, because if a pill can make them more relaxed and feel safe, it’s worth it.
- When you first start working with these cats, keep the environment extremely calm for them. Play meditation music. Move slowly. And be understanding.
- If they like playing, it’s aa good way to get anxious energy out.
- Whatever makes them happy and feel safe, let them do it. Some just like to lay in the sun.
As a cat gets older, they can revert to their former aggressive, moody self if they’re in discomfort or pain. They get very defensive. The good news is if these cats don’t feel well, you’ll know. The bad news is as they age, they will likely have more aggressive episodes (because of chronic things like arthritis and other ailments).
Again, talk to your vet about options to make them more comfortable. Even if they can be on something more mild. There isn’t a lot you can do behaviorally in these cats when they are seniors. The vet might have additional suggestions.
Remember not to get upset if they get upset. It’s not your fault, and they aren’t seeing you as you.
If you’re ever in a situation where you think a cat would be better as a working cat, there are programs that will place them in a farm or barn. They will be looked after, but they won’t be in a traditional house setting. Reach out to local shelters and rescues to inquire about working cat programs.
And, keep in mind, that for animals in abusive situations, obviously it’s important to get them out of it, but the work really begins after they’re removed from it. For those who want to help, reach out to the foster or adopter of a cat that experienced trauma to see if they need your support or help.
Relating Traumatized Cats to People
For these cats, think of them as almost having PTSD. Liz asked a human psychologist about these cats, and was told that when children go through neglect or abuse, they don’t have the ability to look at a person and determine if they are trustworthy.
When the child is an adult, each person they meet starts at square one and must earn the trust, because they don’t have the ability to properly determine the safety of a situation.
In these cats, every person they meet, kind of starts at the bottom. Each person has to build trust with the cat from the ground up.
How can you tell if they’re being aggressive because of the environment or because that’s their personality?
Liz: It’s hard to tell, especially in a stressful shelter environment. It’s really difficult. Some of the things I look for are even at rest, the tip of their tail still moves. It’s almost like they can’t fully relax and something needs to be moving at all times and they’re on guard. Constant dilation of the eyes. Growling all the time even if there’s nothing threatening.
The best thing to do is find a foster who can give the cat a small space to decompress. It can take these cats a couple of weeks up to a couple of months to decompress.
Avoid fosters who have a lot of dogs or young children, because that can be too much noise. Another thing to note is the decompression can take different amounts of time for different cats, if you put them in foster care, it can be a couple of weeks until there’s any progress made.
Prep your foster and tell them not to freak out if they can’t touch the cat for a few weeks. That’s actually normal. Remind the foster that being understanding and patient is important. Sometimes, just sitting with them and reading a book, is helpful.
That way they can get used to you being in the room and it removes the pressure from them, and they learn that you aren’t always coming at them. It makes you less threatening.
Should you keep the cat alone or put them with other cats?
Liz: I think it’s hard because sometimes these cats were targeted by other animals. Sometimes being with another cat will help them relax, and other times it will be the opposite. I don’t really know that there’s a way to know until you try it. It’s worth trying, but if there is an issue, you have to remove the cat immediately. If it works and it unlocks them, it’s definitely so much easier.
Do you think pheromone diffusers and calming collars help?
Dr. Brooks: It definitely doesn’t hurt, but sometimes you’ll need other things like pain meds or behavior work.
Liz: I would also say they have special cat music that’s designed for cats, and that is great for a shelter environment. It’s not going to fix the problem, but it will bring the overall anxiety level down. That’s something else you could try. And if a cat’s really bad, I recommend kitty acupuncture. You see them relax through the session. It’s worth trying because it doesn’t hurt them at all.
Although working with these cats can be exhausting, it’s also extremely rewarding. Remember that if you enter the situation with patience and understanding, you’ll already help them.