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The essentials

  • Bowel obstruction is also known as intestinal obstruction — An obstruction blocks the normal passage of food through the intestines, leading to vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, and death if untreated.
  • There are several possible causes — While ingesting a foreign object is the most common cause, intestinal obstructions can also be caused by tumors, intussusceptions, hernias, and more.
  • Bowel obstructions are always emergencies — Contact your vet immediately if your dog has eaten a foreign object or is showing concerning symptoms.

Bowel obstructions, also known as intestinal obstructions, are common and potentially life-threatening conditions in dogs. This usually occurs when a dog eats an object that they shouldn’t, which then becomes lodged in the intestines. Here’s what a vet wants pet parents to know.

What are bowel obstructions in dogs?

A bowel obstruction occurs when the passage of food and waste through your dog’s intestines is partially or completely blocked. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including ingestion of foreign objects, tumors, or even a twisting of the intestines.

When the intestines are blocked, your dog can’t absorb water or other essential nutrients, leading to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and malnutrition. In severe cases, or if left untreated, the pressure caused by the obstruction can stop blood flow, damage the intestinal wall (causing tissue necrosis), or even cause the intestines to rupture, releasing bacteria into the abdomen and causing a life-threatening infection. Without treatment, death will occur.

🚨 Bowel obstructions are life-threatening medical emergencies requiring urgent treatment. If you are concerned that your dog ate something they shouldn’t have, or if they are showing signs of intestinal obstruction, seek veterinary care immediately. 

Symptoms of an intestinal blockage in dogs

The symptoms of intestinal obstruction can vary depending on the underlying cause, location of the obstruction, and how long it has been present. Recognizing the signs is critical for timely intervention. Common symptoms include:

  • Vomiting. Often severe, persistent, and not responsive to common medications such as Cerenia.
  • Change in bowel movements. Dogs with a partial obstruction may have diarrhea, while those with a complete obstruction cannot pass any feces beyond the obstruction and may strain to defecate.
  • Lack of appetite (medically known as anorexia). A significant decrease or complete loss of interest in food, often leading to weight loss.
  • Abdominal pain and distension. The abdomen may appear swollen and tender to the touch. You may see your dog in a “downward dog” or “praying position,” which can indicate abdominal pain.
  • Lethargy and weakness. The dog may appear less active, dull, and tire easily.
  • Dehydration. Dry gums, sunken eyes, and loss of skin elasticity may indicate dehydration.
  • Other signs of pain. Such as crying, whining, aggression, panting, and restlessness.
  • Abnormal temperature. Either fever or low body temperature.
  • Shock. In severe cases, a dog may exhibit pale gums, rapid breathing, collapse, and a weak pulse. This is a medical emergency.

Causes of a bowel obstruction in dogs

Illustration of three types of bowel obstructions in dogs.

Image courtesy of Merck Veterinary Manual, a respected resource in the field of pet care.

Understanding the potential causes of bowel obstructions can help you take steps to prevent this dangerous condition in your dog.

Ingestion of foreign bodies

Dogs, especially puppies, are naturally indiscriminate eaters and may swallow objects out of curiosity, boredom, or hunger. These can include anything from toys, bones, and clothing to rocks, string, and even diapers. Small or digestible objects may pass through the intestines without issue; however, there is always a risk of intestinal obstruction when a dog eats a foreign or inappropriate object. If your dog eats something they shouldn’t, contact your vet as soon as possible. There may be steps they can take to help avoid a bowel obstruction, but time is of the essence.

⚠️ Corn cobs, tampons, sanitary pads, diapers, sharp objects, coins, batteries, and bones are especially dangerous for dogs to eat. Additionally, linear foreign bodies (string, rope, dental floss, etc.) can become stuck and cause the intestines to bunch up, leading to significant damage. 

Other possible causes

While ingestion of a foreign object is the most common cause of an intestinal obstruction, there are other possible causes as well.

  • Tumors. As dogs age, they become more prone to developing tumors, both benign and malignant. If these tumors grow within the intestines or press on them from the outside, they can cause a blockage.
  • Intussusception. This condition occurs when one part of the intestine slides into another , like a collapsing telescope. This creates a blockage that can quickly cut off blood flow to the affected area.
  • Strictures. Strictures are narrowings of the intestine caused by inflammation, scar tissue, or other underlying medical conditions.
  • Hernias. A hernia occurs when fat, tissue, or organ protrudes through a hole in the abdominal wall. This can sometimes lead to a loop of intestine becoming trapped or incarcerated, resulting in a blockage.
  • Congenital abnormalities. Some dogs are born with structural abnormalities in their intestines, such as a narrowing or malformation, that can predispose them to obstructions.
  • Parasites. High intestinal parasite burden and twisting of the intestines (volvulus) are also possible causes.

Diagnosing bowel obstructions in dogs

There are many possible causes of vomiting and diarrhea in dogs – luckily, most are not due to intestinal obstruction and often resolve quickly with appropriate supportive treatment. However, if your dog shows symptoms of bowel obstruction or has a history of eating foreign objects, it is critical to see your vet as soon as possible.

Your veterinarian will begin with a nose-to-tail physical exam, feeling your dog’s abdomen for signs of pain, distension, or unusual masses. They will also ask about your dog’s medical history, including the onset and severity of symptoms, as well as any potential triggers like recent dietary changes or access to foreign objects. Blood and urine testing will likely be done to assess your dog’s overall health, hydration levels, potential organ damage, or signs of infection.

Several types of imaging can be used to help your vet to visualize the intestines. Radiographs (X-rays) are generally the first step. Some foreign bodies may be visible on X-rays, but your vet will also look for gas buildup (obstructive pattern), bunching of the intestines, and other abnormalities. In some cases, your vet may perform a contrast study. Your dog will be given a special dye (usually barium) that is visible as bright white on X-rays, and then a series of images will be taken to watch how it travels through the GI tract. Ultrasound can also help your vet visualize the intestines and surrounding organs to determine the presence and severity of an intestinal obstruction. In some cases, endoscopy (a tiny camera on a flexible tube) may be inserted to identify and possibly remove foreign objects in the stomach.

If the above tests are inconclusive, exploratory surgery may be needed to confirm and remove a blockage.

Treatment for intestinal blockages

Treatment for ingestion of a foreign object depends on what your dog has eaten, how long ago ingestion occurred, and whether or not they are showing symptoms of a bowel obstruction.

Non-surgical treatment

If your dog has ingested a foreign object less than two hours ago, your vet may be able to make them vomit it up. Never try to do this at home unless directed to by your vet. If a foreign object is small enough, it may pass through the intestines without issues. Some vets may recommend feeding bulky high-fiber food, such as bread or pumpkin, to help coat the object and help it pass. Lastly, if an object is in the stomach or upper intestines, it may be able to be retrieved with endoscopy. While this procedure requires anesthesia, it is much less invasive than abdominal surgery.

⚠️ If your dog is already showing symptoms of intestinal obstruction, emergency surgery is the only treatment option. 

Bowel obstruction surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for intestinal obstruction. Depending on the type and location of the blockage, your veterinarian may perform an exploratory laparotomy – a surgical procedure where an incision is made in the abdomen to assess the intestines visually. If the obstruction is caused by a foreign object, your veterinarian will carefully remove it, sometimes requiring a small incision in the intestine (enterotomy). In cases where a portion of the intestine is damaged beyond repair due to lack of blood flow or excessive pressure, resection and anastomosis may be necessary. This involves removing the damaged section and reconnecting the healthy ends. Additional procedures like removing a tumor or repairing a hernia might also be required.

The cost of intestinal obstruction surgery in dogs can range from $2,000 to $10,000 or more. Discussing the potential costs with your veterinarian before proceeding with surgery is essential, as they can provide you with a more accurate estimate based on your dog’s specific situation.

Recovery from bowel obstruction surgery

Recovery from bowel obstruction surgery is critical for your dog. The initial 72 hours are the most crucial, during which your dog will likely remain hospitalized and on IV fluids so your vet can closely monitor them for any complications, such as infection, bleeding, or dehiscence (suture breakdown). Pain management and antibiotics are also typically part of the post-operative care to ensure your dog’s comfort.

You will receive specific instructions from your veterinarian on caring for your dog at home after discharge. The recovery period is generally 14 days and will involve:

  • Activity restriction
  • Medication administration
  • Bland diet
  • Wound care and monitoring
  • E-collar
  • Regular follow-up appointments

The prognosis for dogs who undergo bowel obstruction surgery varies depending on several factors, such as the underlying cause, location of the obstruction, time to diagnosis and treatment, and your dog’s overall health. In most cases, with quick treatment and appropriate post-operative care, dogs can fully recover and go on to live normal, healthy, happy lives – in fact, the survival rate for dogs with intestinal obstructions due to foreign bodies is reported at 83-99% . More severe blockages, those requiring resection and anastomosis, the presence of a tumor, or the development of complications, may carry different prognoses based on the individual situation. In all cases, it’s crucial to follow your veterinarian’s instructions carefully and be vigilant for any signs of complications during the recovery period.

Prevention is key for canine bowel obstructions

If ingesting a foreign object was the cause of your dog’s intestinal obstruction, it’s important to take steps to prevent recurrence. By taking some simple and proactive steps, you can significantly reduce your dog’s risk of developing this potentially life-threatening condition.

  1. Supervise your dog. Be especially mindful of puppies and dogs known to chew or ingest non-food items. Supervise them during playtime, both indoors and outdoors, to ensure they don’t pick up and swallow anything dangerous.
  2. Secure your home. Keep your home free of potential hazards. Store toys, clothing, and other enticing objects out of your dog’s reach. Secure trash cans with lids and pick up any debris or food scraps that may fall on the floor.
  3. Choose safe toys. Opt for toys specifically designed for dogs and avoid those with small parts that can easily break off and be swallowed. Be sure to replace worn-out or damaged toys promptly.
  4. Avoid feeding hazardous foods. Never give your dog corn cobs or cooked bones. Be cautious with rawhide treats, as some dogs may swallow large pieces, leading to a blockage.
  5. Train your dog. Teach your dog basic commands like “leave it” and “drop it.” This can be invaluable in preventing them from picking up and swallowing dangerous objects.
  6. Use a basket muzzle. If your dog continues trying to eat things they shouldn’t, you may need to train them to wear a basket muzzle for their safety.
  7. Regular veterinary checkups. Schedule regular checkups with your veterinarian. This allows for early detection of any underlying health conditions that could contribute to bowel obstructions, such as tumors or intestinal inflammation.
  8. Consider pet insurance. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, one in three pets will require emergency care in their lifetime. To help with unexpected medical costs, consider pet insurance or have an emergency fund in place.

Bowel obstruction is a serious and potentially fatal condition in dogs. Understanding the causes, recognizing the signs, and taking proactive steps to prevent this condition can significantly increase your dog’s chances of a happy, healthy life. Remember, time is of the essence — If you suspect your dog may be suffering from this condition, don’t hesitate to seek immediate veterinary care. Your dog’s life may depend on it.

Frequently asked questions

Will a dog still poop if they have a blockage?

Dogs with a partial blockage may still pass some stool, but it may be watery or thin. However, a complete blockage prevents any stool from passing beyond the obstruction (feces already present past the obstruction will still be pooped out).

What are the warning signs of a bowel obstruction?

Keep a watchful eye out for these potential signs of a bowel obstruction in your dog: persistent vomiting, lack of appetite, lethargy, a painful or swollen abdomen, difficulty or inability to pass stool or gas, diarrhea, and signs of discomfort like whining, crying, or a “praying position.”

How do you clear an intestinal blockage in a dog?

Clearing a dog’s bowel obstruction usually requires veterinary intervention. Sometimes, a small foreign object may pass, or your vet might try non-surgical methods like endoscopy. However, surgery is often the only effective solution, especially for larger or more complex blockages.

What are home remedies for bowel obstructions in dogs?

There are no safe or effective home remedies for bowel obstructions in dogs. Attempting to treat this condition at home can delay necessary veterinary care and worsen your dog’s condition, potentially leading to fatal consequences. It’s crucial to seek immediate veterinary attention if you suspect your dog has a bowel obstruction.

How much can bowel obstruction surgery cost?

The cost of bowel obstruction surgery varies depending on several factors, including the severity of the obstruction, the type of surgery required, the location of the veterinary clinic, and the dog’s overall health. It can range from $2,000 to $10,000 or more on average.

How long can a dog survive without treatment for a bowel obstruction?

Without treatment, a bowel obstruction can quickly become fatal. The severity of the blockage and the dog’s overall health play a role, but generally, a dog will only survive 3-4 days without intervention. Prompt veterinary care is essential to save your dog’s life.