Bowel obstruction or gastrointestinal blockage in your dog is a frightening problem.
It could happen if your dog gulps her raw bones. Or maybe she guzzles contraband on walks … or gets into the garbage, counter-surfs or chews up her toys.
And it can be a real emergency.
So, in case it happens, I want to tell you how to recognize it … and what to do about it.
Obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract happens when there’s a partial or complete obstruction of the flow of fluids and solids at any point through the digestive tract … starting at the stomach and continuing to the end of the rectum.
This is a fairly common problem. And it’s one that can lead to acute illness – or a life-threatening emergency – in a pretty short space of time. Bowel obstruction in dogs can vary from mild (partial obstructions) to severe (complete obstruction, with or without perforation of the digestive tract).
So it’s important to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms and to understand when your dog needs to go to a vet.
What Are The Signs Of Bowel Obstruction?
Your dog will be obviously unwell if she has a complete obstruction. Partial obstructions are often less obvious, with only low-grade symptoms. If your dog is showing any symptoms, consider whether she’s had access to bones, toys or other potential foreign bodies recently.
If your dog is clearly getting sicker, don’t hesitate to get to the vet. Obstructions may need urgent surgery to save her life. The take-home message is don’t sit on it. Some dogs may only show mild symptoms … but then slowly fade and get more and more listless.
These are some classic signs of an obstruction.
Loss Of Appetite
If your dog is off her food it could be an early or ongoing warning sign … especially if she’s normally a good eater!
Dogs vomit very easily, so you only need to get concerned if there’s repeated vomiting. If your dog vomits many times in a day, especially for more than a day or two (and if she has other symptoms) … then get to the vet. If there’s blood in the vomit, it’s more reason to worry.
RELATED: Reasons your dog might be vomiting …
Dogs with gastrointestinal obstruction often develop diarrhea. In some cases, this may have blood in it. Bloody diarrhea can indicate a more severe problem.
Acting Depressed Or “Flat”
Most dogs with a GI obstruction will progressively become depressed, flat, and less responsive to their owners, other dogs, or anything. Again … if your dog has any of the other symptoms and is fading like this, get her to the vet urgently.
With vomiting and diarrhea, your dog will be losing fluids. Also, intestinal tract damage and inflammation can cause even more fluid loss. If your dog has tacky, sticky gums when you run your finger in between her lips and the area above her top teeth, it usually means significant dehydration.
Most dogs with a GI obstruction have severe abdominal pain as well as a lack of appetite. A classic sign of pain is the bowing down position. Your dog may not want to be touched on the tummy. Or she may groan and be tense and wide eyed when you touch her there.
Beware Of Bloat!
Depending on where the blockage is, your dog may develop a swollen or bloated stomach over time. Be aware of these clinical signs and never ignore your bump of trouble. If you think something isn’t right with your dog, you need to listen to that!
When Your Dog Needs To See A Vet
If your dog has these symptoms, she may have bloat or gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV) … get her to the vet or an emergency vet ASAP.
- Sudden bloating
- Showing distress and signs of pain
- Trying to vomit without producing anything
- Rapidly getting worse
Bloat is a life or death emergency and needs immediate veterinary attention.
There are many reasons your dog may have a blockage … and some aren’t her fault.
What Causes Bowel Obstruction in Dogs?
Gastrointestinal blockage can be caused by internal problems such as:
- A tumor growing large enough to block the flow-through
- A stricture (abnormal narrowing) due to damage from ulceration
- Adhesions or scar tissue from prior surgery
- Severe inflammation of the GI tract causing swelling
Other causes of GI blockage, although not as common, are GI inflammation, twisting of the intestines and intestinal parasites.
A foreign body obstruction is more common cause of intestinal blockage. Your dog may have swallowed …
- Balls or toys
- Trash or foreign objects
- Bones (especially cooked bones)
- Sticks, rocks or stones
- Non-food objects that can’t be digested
- Metal objects or coins
- Strange objects
- … or any number of things your dog may gulp down!
What’s the Prognosis for Bowel Obstruction in Dogs?
The amount of harm done will depend on:
- The nature of the object
- Size of the object
- How long it’s been stuck in there
- Where it gets stuck
- Degree of obstruction – whether it’s a partial or complete blockage
A partial blockage causes less harm than a total obstruction.
Some materials will cause harm because they’re poisonous (like lead objects) … or corrosive (like batteries). String-like or sharp objects may puncture the bowels and lead to peritonitis.
Peritonitis happens when gut contents leak into the abdominal cavity. It’s a rapidly spreading infection and it causes rapid and severe illness … with septic shock not too far down the road. Peritonitis is an urgent and life-threatening medical emergency.
Even without perforation, the continual vomiting and diarrhea from a blockage can lead to life-threatening dehydration and electrolyte imbalances over time.
How To Diagnose A Bowel Obstruction In Dogs
There can be several ways your vet will diagnose a blockage in your dog. When you get to the vet, the first thing they will want to do is to run some bloodwork to see if there are any other possible causes for the symptoms.
That’s always a good idea!
Then your vet will probably want to take some x-rays of the abdomen. X-rays are often diagnostic for GI obstructions. If plain x-rays are inconclusive and your dog isn’t too unwell, your vet may give a barium meal … then take a series of x-rays to see how far the digestive system moves the contrast.
Abdominal ultrasound scans can be very useful in imaging foreign bodies, too.
Treating Bowel Obstruction in Dogs
Some foreign bodies will work their way through and out the other end in a bowel movement, but only if they’re fairly small and not too damaging to the tissues. Olive oil or other lubricants won’t really help. You’re better off feeding your dog a bulky meal to cushion stones or odd objects. That helps move them out without damaging the delicate lining of the intestines. Food also creates digestive juices, that can soften wads of those nasty rawhide treats, so they pass more readily.
Your vet can remove some foreign bodies in the stomach by endoscopy … which avoids surgery.
When Your Dog Needs Abdominal or Intestinal Blockage Surgery
Unfortunately, many obstruction cases will require surgery to resolve the problem. This could be the solution for a tumor, a restriction, or a foreign body.
If the foreign body is in the stomach, the surgery is relatively simple. If the blockage is in the intestines, sometimes it’s as simple as making an incision and popping out the object before stitching it all back up. Other times, if there’s severe damage … your vet may need to remove multiple sections of the intestines and stitch the healthy ends back together.
Your dog will probably need to stay in hospital on supportive care like intravenous fluid therapy … usually, until she starts eating and having bowel movements again. Then there will be a period of recovery when you get home. Most dogs recover well, but some dogs can have ongoing issues.
If your dog needs surgery, the sooner the better. This is because the longer the blockage is there, the more the tissue and intestinal wall can be damaged, and the sicker your dog gets.
So there you have it. Try not to let your dog get hold of indigestible objects to eat! But be armed with this awareness, just in case.
Watch for these symptoms and don’t ever ignore your bump of trouble … then you’ll know your dog has an intestinal obstruction when you see it. If you think something isn’t right with your dog, you need to listen to that!