Before I entered the exam room, the technician briefed me on the situation.
“Gracie has not eaten for three days and her owner is missing a sock – she thinks Gracie ate it.”
A derisive snort escaped before I could control it.
“She knows she’s missing one sock?” I said with a chuckle, “You should see the unmatched sock pile in my house at this minute – I wouldn’t know if my dog ate a pile of socks!”
“Me, either,” said the tech and we both giggled, albeit seriously impressed by anyone who knows where all their socks are on any given day – laundry day or not. I said as much to the owner while I examined her dog.
“I keep good track of my socks because Gracie eats them,” the owner told me. In fact, Gracie had a history of eating and regurgitating whole socks twice in her young life. She was an energetic one-year-old pit bull terrier, and spent much of the exam hopping around and happily trying to kiss me.
Her physical exam was normal in every aspect. She appeared to feel no pain, was not dehydrated, had nothing unusual in her abdomen as far as I could tell by palpating her and she wasn’t bloated.
Sara said she had not vomited at all – she simply refused to eat. She had been drinking water and keeping it down. She had even had a bowel movement that was normal during the three days.
Given Gracie’s history, and the fact that her owner was so attentive about her laundry, being certain one of her socks was missing, we decided to admit Gracie for some tests. When I saw the radiographs (x-ray pictures) I was relatively certain the owner was right: the stomach was full, but the rest of the intestines were apparently empty, aside from some stool that was in the colon.
Now, on a radiograph, there is no way to tell a sock from a stomach full of kibble or, say, trash from a wastebasket, so we postponed until morning the decision to take Gracie to surgery.
It’s a big decision in a case like this. Aside from not eating, she was normal in every other way.
Repeat radiographs the next morning showed the stuff in the stomach had not moved, which was enough for me to be convinced we had a problem – we performed a gastrotomy (opened the stomach) that day.
So, let’s discuss. Why do dogs eat stupid things?
In my experience, there are a variety of reasons.
The first is due to the dog’s natural need to chew.
It is something we cannot remove from their genetic wiring, no matter how much we may wish it.
Chewing is an important exercise for the jaws of a predator, and is a darn relaxing way to spend some down-time for these creatures. Some dogs chew more than others, but all seem to enjoy it when given the proper stimulation in the form of a wonderful chew toy, table leg, article of clothing, or wastebasket contents.
Dogs also like to shred things, ripping and tearing with their teeth. It is part of dissecting the meat from the bones, so to speak, and is apparently very rewarding, sort of like the sound of breaking glass to a guy. (What is that all about? I don’t get it, but then, I’m female.)
The act of chewing is a natural pastime for a dog,and swallowing items that are being chewed is only natural in most instances.
Some dogs, like Gracie, will eat/swallow a non-food item (termed a “foreign body”) as a method of keeping it away from someone who might take it. This also is part of the hard-wiring of a predator like a dog, since working hard to bring down his lunch means he has a vested interest in keeping others away from it. The fact that a protected item is not food is unimportant to the dog at that moment. Logic plays no part here – a survival instinct takes over.
An obvious reason an animal may eat foreign material is because it is covered with something yummy. Like, for instance, the sharp pieces of a pudding cup I removed from a Standard Poodle’s stomach a few years ago. Sometimes animals simply make a terrible mistake. Cats have a tendency to be attracted to strings and things that dangle (thread, yarn, tinsel, drapery cord, etc.) or things that make crinkly noises, like plastic bags. Cats also like to play with wire twisty ties, and many times end up swallowing them in their enthusiasm with “making a kill.” Anyone who’s ever seen a cat hunt, kill and eat an insect will see the obvious parallel here.
What else do we see animals eat? You might be surprised.
Favorite items are articles of clothing, bedding, toys (pet and children’s), rocks, wood, trash and bones. Some of the more unusual items have been cassette tapes, a syringe – ingested while on a walk alongside the Susquehanna River (!), coins and a rubber gasket.
And those are just the ones that come to mind. Ask any veterinarian, and they’ll name half a dozen of their favorites.
Some folks want to know if their animal has a nutritional need for something perhaps lacking in the diet, thus causing them to eat foreign bodies.
There is a condition called “pica” in which animals and even children do just that: they eat dirt and other non-edible things in response to a mineral deficiency in the diet, typically iron. But the vast majority of foreign body ingestions are more behavioral than medical.
It is highly unlikely a dog or cat or ferret eating a good-quality commercial diet of kibble or canned food is suffering from a dietary deficiency.
How do you keep your pet from eating things they shouldn’t?
Unfortunately, the only tried and true way is to be vigilant and tidy. Keep things like sewing kits locked away from cats. Don’t decorate with tinsel. Don’t leave Barbie lying around on the floor. Keep the garbage under control and in a spot where an animal can’t rummage through it (even wild animals get into trouble over garbage – a friend of mine said she had to rescue a raccoon from almost falling into her pool, with a soup can stuck on his head.)
This all seems like common sense, but accidents do happen. That’s where we come in. If you are aware, like Gracie’s owner, that something is missing, and your animal is acting sick in any way, it’s a good idea to schedule an exam.
Not sure whether to be concerned? When in doubt, call. You may be told to wait and watch, you may be told to come in immediately.
And for goodness sake, if a string is hanging out of the animal’s anus, don’t pull on it! Call your veterinarian ASAP and get that animal in. Strings are bad, bad, bad.
On occasion, surgery is done, yet nothing is found. This is highly bothersome to the veterinarian, who, like a car mechanic saving the bad part for the owner, has nothing to show and tell. Not to mention all the fruitless work of looking around in the abdomen for the foreign body, which usually takes longer than a positive exploratory surgery – it’s a real downer.
But, folks, that is the art of doing medicine. Sometimes we need to make life-and-death decisions, and we may guess wrong. Our patients have a lot of trouble telling us what’s bothering them.
Even hospitals for humans do surgeries that come up “negative.”
There is an old adage in veterinary medicine about this situation: “It is better to have a negative exploratory than a positive autopsy.”
The last thing an owner wants to hear is that they were right about their dog eating that rubber gasket – only too late. Death from peritonitis is an awful way to go.
So what happened with Gracie?
When Gracie was waking up from anesthesia, I called her owner with the update.
“She’s doing fine, and did well through the procedure,” I began, “but you know that missing sock you were concerned about?”
“Yes?” she said, anxiously.
“Well you’re still missing it, I’m afraid,” I said.
“No, I’m not,” I said, “You are, however, also missing FOUR other socks, but we found those – two pair, matching, one set with cute little nurses on them.”
“Four ?” her voice trailed off.
She was stunned, but finally saw the humor in her unfortunate situation, and was, of course, relieved that we found the answer to Gracie’s problem.
When I removed the fourth sock from Gracie’s stretched stomach, I was pleased to see her GI tract in good shape.
I also feel much better about my unmatched sock collection, now, since Gracie’s owner is fanatical about keeping track of all her socks, and still can’t find the one she noticed missing in the first place.
In her defense: it’s one thing to account for the unmatched socks, but one would have to be an organizing genius to account for pairs of missing socks. If you can do that, you need a hobby.
When Gracie came back to see me for her post surgical examination, she bounced in and gave me the customary kisses all over my hands, arms, knees and anywhere else she could manage. She had healed up beautifully, recovering from her ordeal as if nothing unusual had happened.
In fact, this goes out as a warning to all owners of dogs that like to eat things that they shouldn’t: they’ll do it again.
Dogs don’t learn from these experiences. I once saw a pit-bull that liked to eat gloves. He had two gastrotomies and did fine. Unfortunately, the third glove killed him; surgery was done too late.
Now, Gracie happens to be one of those dogs mentioned earlier that likes to swallow things to keep them away from her owner.
She eats a very good diet, and to my knowledge, does not have a cotton/lycra deficiency.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.
“I didn’t eat the sandwich Daddy packed me for lunch,” my son told me one night at bedtime. “So, when Daddy was unpacking my lunchbox, he gave the bread to the dogs.”
(Pause, for dramatic effect.)
“He gave, like, a WHOLE SLICE to Walter!” As he said this last bit, he fixed his eyes on my face, waiting for my expected volcanic reaction. I did not disappoint him.
You see, I had been watching our dog, Walter, getting a bit thick through the middle. I also had been very vocal with my family about it.
For months, I kept making comments about Walter’s weight and how confused I was that, although I was carefully measuring his food, watching to see that he ate only his own, and wasn’t giving him treats or snacks, he was clearly packing on pounds.
(Okay, in his case, maybe A pound – which for Walter, is huge.) Obviously, as I constitute only one of the beings who have power over the food distribution in this household, I am not in complete control of the calories going into Walter’s gullet.
On one memorable occasion, my husband happened to be watching as I portioned the evening meal for the dogs.
“Oh, you MEASURE it?” he said, as if this were a brand new concept.
I was speechless. Once recovered, I took a moment to demonstrate, offering visual effects and hand motions worthy of the “Price Is Right” ladies, the proper way to measure the allotment of food to be given to each dog and the disbursement of the food thereof. Problem solved, or so I thought.
Like any good manager, a few weeks after our discussion, I performed a follow-up on my dog food allotment assignment by quizzing the responsible parties on how much each dog was to receive for each meal.
The children aced the test. Guess who failed? The correct answer was a half-cup for each dachshund, two cups for Westley (my parents’ golden retriever). His answer for Westley was correct.
For the dachshunds it was, “Uh, like a cup or a half-cup something like that.”
1. That is not measuring.
2. He scores a 50 percent on my quiz.
3. Walter is getting (depending on the day and cafeteria server) roughly TWICE the calories per day that he should.
4. Walter is very happy to clean all the food provided out of his bowl, and ask for more. Always. And more always is better in his eyes.
Now, why on earth would I air my embarrassing dirty laundry for all to read? Because I’m hoping that by printing this in the paper, acquaintances, clients and family members who read this will remind my husband whenever they see him that it’s HALF a cup of food for the dachshunds.
Repetition, repetition, repetition.
As is my way, I also write of this to illustrate a point. This time, the point is all about compliance – the bane of the health professional’s existence. Like when your dental hygienist asks if you floss every day.
Of course you do, right? Or when your doctor prescribed the exercises for your lower back pain – you did them faithfully, right? And you never have leftover antibiotics, because you take every dose at exactly the time you’re supposed to until they are finished. Very good. If all that’s true, go to the head of the class.
In reality, scientific studies on the topic suggest that while approximately 80 percent of people finish their entire prescription, only about 30 percent take the doses at the proper times.
For some drugs like antibiotics, compliance may be the difference between getting better and staying sick.
Compliance in my field is roughly defined as an owner’s willingness to follow their veterinarian’s prescribed course of treatment, but it amounts to more than just willingness, as far as I’m concerned.
I’m a realist.
Sometimes we doctors unwittingly stack the deck against compliance.
I may be a health professional, but I’m also a mom and a wife. I work a full time job, then come home to a nutty, tossed-up house with barking dogs, squabbling children, fur all over the carpet and cats that refuse to be ignored, leaping from tabletop to tabletop in the midst of the melee.
Don’t even get me started with the tortoise, turtle and fish responsibilities. Laundry, dishes, meal preparations, shopping for various supplies for home, school, office, errands galore. And the chaos just starts all over the next day. Now, add in a medication that must be poked down the unwilling cat’s throat every 8 hours on an empty stomach – yeah, right.
Now, I tend to take people at their word. I think most veterinarians are like that.
So, when owners come back complaining that the course of medications prescribed didn’t work, or only worked for a short time, we tend to take them seriously and look for another solution.
We might order a bunch of new tests, try new medications, re-evaluate the case from different perspectives, or call in the experts. Much of that may not be necessary – if folks were straight with us from the beginning.
How refreshing it is to hear, “You know, doc, the medications were just too hard to get in – and we weren’t very successful doing it.”
Now, at least I know it wasn’t that we were going down the wrong diagnostic or treatment path – we just have to be cleverer at finding a way to administer the meds to the patient.
So, here’s the thing: If your veterinarian prescribes a medication that you know you won’t be able to administer as directed, or after all good intentions, you find it is impossible to do – TELL HIM! Better to be up-front than keep him wondering where to go next.
Sometimes there are many newfangled ways to administer some types of medications that may be a better solution than more traditional routes, for instance, a few medications can be formulated into transdermal gels that can be applied to the animal’s skin instead of struggling with giving pills to, say, a fully-armed cat.
Sometimes, you’ll still be faced with oral medications, but there may be tricks to administering it to your animal you haven’t tried – and a quick lesson in the veterinary office will be life-altering for you and your pet.
Sometimes medications can be formulated to taste good even to your finicky cat.
I feel the need to underscore that nobody (even the veterinarian wife of a veterinarian) is immune to poor compliance issues.
There are quite a few perfectly sound treatment regimes for various ailments that I would hesitate to prescribe for my own animals.
Because I know my chaotic household and life.
I can’t even get my husband to measure HALF A CUP of food for the dachshunds until I finally installed a cup that ONLY measures half a cup – do you really think he’d be able to remember eye drops every six hours?
Heck, I couldn’t, either.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.