Dog: Gastrointestinal Obstruction

General information

Other common/scientific names: intestinal obstruction, ileus, stomach foreign body, intestinal foreign body

The digestive system of the dog begins with the oral cavity and ends with the rectum. In between is the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, cecum and large intestine or colon.

An obstruction can occur anywhere in the intestinal system, but it happens more frequently in the small intestine due to its narrow lumen. This obstruction prevents food and water from passing through the intestinal tract and can result in dehydration. Additionally, the intestinal wall may become damaged or perforated at the site of the obstruction causing tissue death and the release of bacterial toxins into the bloodstream. This can lead to peritonitis (inflammation or infection of the abdominal cavity), systemic shock and death.


Gastrointestinal obstructions can be found in the lumen of the intestine, in the wall of the intestine, surrounding the intestine or as a result of decreased peristalsis or muscle contractions. These include:

  • Foreign objects. Dogs often eat objects such as balls, socks, coins, strings, rocks, toys etc. Many of these objects are too large to leave the stomach. And while a complete obstruction of the stomach is rare, these objects can cause damage and clinical signs. Others objects can pass through the stomach but become lodged in the small intestinal tract. Linear foreign bodies cause the greatest damage. Because of their length, they involve a long section of bowel. The small intestine “bunches up” on the string much like an accordion. The string can become tight and cuts into the lining of the intestinal tract causing a perforation. Ingestion of foreign objects is the most common cause of gastrointestinal obstruction.
  • Tumors
  • Intussusception. An intussusception is the telescoping or sliding of the intestine within itself. It can be caused by a heavy endoparasite infection, enteritis (inflammation or infection of the intestinal tract), tumor or a linear foreign body.
  • Volvulus. Volvulus means twisting of the intestines. It can be caused by vigorous activity, trauma or dietary indiscretion. This twisting occludes (shuts off) the blood supply to the bowel causing damage and tissue death.
  • Ileus. Ileus is paralysis or lack of peristalsis (muscle contractions) of the intestines. Causes include peritonitis, systemic disease and abdominal surgery.
  • Constipation/Obstipation

Cardinal symptom



The clinical signs produced by an obstruction will depend on the location and severity of the obstruction. A complete obstruction of the small intestine will produce more acute, severe signs than a partial obstruction of the large intestine. The clinical signs of gastrointestinal obstruction include vomiting, abdominal pain, anorexia, constipation or diarrhea and fever. Severe cases in which the intestinal tract has been perforated will show signs of dehydration and shock.


A complete physical examination including a thorough oral examination should be performed on any dog suspected of having an intestinal obstruction. Some foreign objects can be found lodged in the mouth and throat. Diagnosis of the obstruction is confirmed with radiographs.

Barium is often given to add contrast and serial radiographs are taken to observe its passage through the intestines. Many times, the barium will highlight a foreign body or tumor, identifying the type and location of obstruction. For obstructions located in the throat, esophagus or stomach, endoscopy can be used. This involves passing a flexible tube with a lighted scope to visualize the lining and lumen these organs.

Abb. GG3OIPTG: Foreign Body.
This is a radiograph of the abdomen of a dog given barium. The barium is the bright white material seen in the small intestine. The arrow points to a foreign body in the lumen of the small intestine.


Most cases of gastrointestinal obstruction will require surgery. Foreign objects will need to be removed. Endoscopy can be used to remove small foreign bodies from the esophagus and stomach. Intussusception, volvulus and linear foreign bodies may have damaged sections of bowel which will need to be removed and the healthy ends reattached. Hospitalization, intravenous fluids, antibiotics and medications are given for 2-5 days after surgery.

Treatment for causes of obstruction not requiring surgery will depend on the actual cause.

Occasionally, small foreign bodies are diagnosed that can pass through the intestinal tract with the aid of intestinal lubricants or high fiber diets. These dogs should be supervised by a veterinarian and monitored closely for signs of obstruction.


The prognosis is good for gastrointestinal obstructions which are diagnosed early and are treatable with surgery. Most dogs tolerate abdominal surgery well providing there are no signs of intestinal perforation and peritonitis. However, many intestinal obstructions are partial and the clinical signs are vague. This leads to delayed diagnosis and treatment and can result in a poorer prognosis.


Prevent access to objects that can be swallowed. Only allow your dog to chew on toys that cannot be swallowed.


For dogs undergoing surgery, it is very important that the dog does not lick or pull at the sutures. A second surgery can be necessary if the dog removes the sutures too soon. A special collar (E-collar or Elizabethan collar) is worn by the dog to prevent this. While this collar may seem uncomfortable, most dogs tolerate it well. It may need to be removed to allow the dog to eat.


If you see or suspect your dog has ingested a foreign object, call your veterinarian immediately. Depending on the object, some items can pass through the intestinal tract. Your veterinarian will provide the proper instruction. If you notice a string or linear body protruding from the rectum of your dog, do not attempt to remove or pull on the object! This can cause serious intestinal damage. Call your veterinarian immediately.

Update version: 4/24/2014, © Copyright by
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