Does My Dog Have a Stomach Blockage? Symptoms and What to Do

Introduction

A blockage in a dog’s stomach or intestines is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition where the passage of food and fluid is obstructed. This prevents the dog’s gastrointestinal system from functioning properly. Blockages can be caused by foreign objects, ingested materials, tumors, twists in the intestines, or intussusception (where the intestine telescopes in on itself).

Blockages are extremely concerning because they can lead to a buildup of toxins, dehydration, perforations or ruptures in the GI tract, sepsis, and even death if not treated promptly. A complete obstruction blocks all contents from passing and requires emergency surgery. Partial obstructions may still allow some passage but also need rapid veterinary care. Any suspicion of a possible blockage in a dog requires immediate action.

Common Causes

Some of the most common causes of intestinal blockages in dogs include:

Bones – Bones that are too small can become stuck in the esophagus or intestines and cause an obstruction. Chicken bones, rib bones, and T-bones are especially dangerous.

x-ray showing intestinal blockage

Toys – Hard rubber toys, tennis balls, and stuffed animals with plastic parts can cause a blockage if swallowed. Supervision is recommended when dogs are playing with these types of toys.

Socks – Dogs seem to love to swallow socks, but socks can bunch up in the intestines and cause a blockage.

Rocks – Some dogs enjoy chewing on and swallowing rocks, which then become lodged in the digestive tract.

Packaging – Dogs can tear into packaging and swallow pieces of plastic, foil, cellophane, and Styrofoam, leading to an obstruction.

Food – Large pieces of rawhide, pig ears, or bully sticks that are swallowed before they can be chewed into small pieces may cause an obstruction.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of a potential stomach or intestinal blockage in dogs include:

  • Vomiting – This is often the first sign of a blockage. Vomit may contain undigested food, bile, or even traces of blood.
  • Diarrhea – Some dogs with partial blockages may have diarrhea as the body tries to clear the obstruction. Diarrhea may contain blood or mucus.
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia) – Blockages often lead to decreased appetite.
  • Lethargy – Blocked dogs tend to become less active and more lethargic as toxins build up.
  • Abdominal pain – Dogs may whine, cry, or snap when their belly is touched or pressed on if a blockage is causing pain.

Other possible signs include dehydration, weakness, weight loss, bloating, and inability to defecate. The severity depends on the location and completeness of the obstruction. Partial blockages allow some food and stool to pass, while complete blockages cut off all flow.

According to the Springhouse Animal Hospital, symptoms often come on quickly if a dog has ingested a foreign object that blocks the intestines. But symptoms may develop slowly over time if a tumor or other internal issue causes a narrowing intestinal stricture.

Diagnosis

If a bowel obstruction is suspected, the vet will perform a physical exam, focusing on palpating the abdomen. They will check for pain, enlarged loops of intestines, or an abnormal mass in the belly. The vet will also listen for decreased or absent bowel sounds, which can indicate an obstruction.

X-rays are usually the first diagnostic imaging test ordered. X-rays can reveal intestinal obstructions like bone fragments, stones, foreign objects, tumors, or an area of intestines dilated with gas and fluid. X-rays allow the vet to determine if surgery is required.

vet performing abdominal ultrasound on dog

Abdominal ultrasound is another helpful diagnostic tool. Ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of the intestines and abdominal organs. It can detect tumors, inflammation, and fluid buildup. Ultrasound is useful for looking at the gallbladder, kidneys, and other soft tissues that don’t appear on x-rays.

Blood work provides information about organ function, electrolyte levels, and systemic infection. Bloodwork helps assess the patient’s health status before anesthesia and surgery. It may reveal low potassium levels, high calcium, or bacteria in the blood from a compromised intestine.

Treatment

Treatment for an intestinal blockage often begins with giving the dog IV fluids to prevent dehydration and restore electrolyte balance. The vet will also recommend resting the gastrointestinal tract by withholding food for 12-24 hours. They may prescribe medications like antiemetics to control vomiting or laxatives to help pass the obstruction if it’s small enough.

If the blockage does not resolve with conservative treatment, surgery may be necessary. This involves making an incision into the abdomen and locating the obstruction to remove it. In some cases, part of the intestines may need to be removed if the tissue is damaged. Typically, dogs recover well from surgery if the obstruction is found early before necrosis sets in.

dog recovering after surgery

After surgery, the vet will continue to provide supportive care with IV fluids and medications. They will slowly reintroduce bland food once the dog’s digestive system starts functioning normally again. Most dogs make a full recovery within a couple weeks with proper treatment, monitoring, and aftercare.

Home Care

If your dog has a mild stomach blockage, your vet may recommend home care while monitoring your dog’s condition. Home care usually involves withholding food, encouraging fluids, and watching for worsening symptoms.

Withholding food allows the gastrointestinal system to rest and can help an obstruction pass through the intestines more easily. Your dog should not eat any solid food during this time. However, it’s important to encourage fluid intake to prevent dehydration. Offer small amounts of water frequently. Electrolyte-replacing liquids like unflavored Pedialyte can also be given (source).

While caring for your dog at home, monitor for worsening symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, abdominal pain or enlarged abdomen. These could indicate the blockage is not resolving on its own. Contact your veterinarian if your dog’s condition declines. They can reassess if more aggressive treatment is needed.

Prevention

There are several ways to help prevent your dog from developing a stomach or intestinal blockage:

Avoid Dangerous Objects

Be vigilant about keeping harmful items out of your dog’s reach. This includes things like rocks, toys, clothing, trash, batteries, etc. Dogs are notorious for eating just about anything, so keep hazardous and indigestible objects properly contained (AHS Vet, 2022).

Monitor Eating Habits

Pay attention to what and how your dog is eating. Make sure they are chewing food thoroughly and not gulping large chunks. Feed them slowly and use puzzle toys or slow feed bowls to pace their consumption. This gives the intestines time to properly digest food (AKC, 2022).

Use Slow Feed Bowls

As mentioned, using a slow feed bowl designed for dogs can help regulate their speed of eating. This prevents them from scarfing down food too quickly and overwhelming the digestive system. Slow feed bowls have ridges, mazes, or obstacles so dogs have to navigate around them to access the food. Consult with your vet on the best options for your dog.

Knowing When It’s Serious

If your dog is showing signs of a blockage, it’s important to monitor them closely and watch for any signs that their condition is worsening. Here are some red flags that indicate an intestinal blockage may be becoming serious or life-threatening:

Signs of Bowel Obstruction in Dogs & What to Do

Signs of shock: If your dog seems extremely lethargic, has pale gums, rapid heart rate, weakness, or collapse, they may be going into shock. This is an emergency situation and you should seek veterinary care immediately.

Vomiting blood: If your dog vomits blood or the vomit looks like coffee grounds, this indicates bleeding in the digestive tract and is a sign that the blockage is causing damage. Get to the vet right away.

Increasing lethargy: If your dog seems to be getting more and more tired and unwilling to move around, this can be a sign that toxins are building up in the bloodstream due to the blockage. Lethargy often progresses to collapse which is a medical emergency.

Any of these signs indicate a complete blockage that is causing systemic effects and damage that can quickly become life threatening. Don’t wait to see if your dog improves on their own. Get emergency veterinary care right away if you notice any of these serious symptoms.

Prognosis

The prognosis for dogs with a stomach or intestinal blockage depends heavily on the cause and how quickly treatment is sought, but overall is often good with proper treatment. Some key factors that influence the prognosis include:

  • Type of obstruction – Foreign bodies that can pass through the intestinal tract on their own often have better prognoses than obstructions requiring surgery.
  • Location – Blockages in the stomach or upper small intestine tend to cause more rapid deterioration than lower intestinal obstructions.
  • Duration – The longer an obstruction goes untreated, the higher the risk of necrosis, perforation, sepsis and other complications.
  • Cause – Blockages from intussusception, hernias or tumors tend to have poorer prognoses than simple foreign body obstructions.
  • Overall health – Dogs who are otherwise healthy tend to tolerate obstructions and treatment better.

In cases treated promptly with surgery to remove the obstruction, most dogs make a full recovery and return to normal health. With non-surgical treatment of passable foreign bodies, recovery may take several days but prognosis is generally good. In some cases though, part of the intestine damaged from the obstruction may need to be removed, requiring prolonged care.

For blockages resulting from chronic conditions like tumors, the underlying disease will impact the prognosis. But even in these cases, removing the obstruction can provide substantial short-term improvement in quality of life. Overall, a timely diagnosis and tailored treatment plan give most dogs with stomach/intestinal obstructions a good prognosis.

When to See the Vet

If you notice any symptoms of a possible intestinal blockage in your dog, it’s crucial not to wait and see if the issue resolves on its own. According to the American Kennel Club, you should seek veterinary attention for your dog as soon as you suspect they may have ingested something that could cause a blockage.

person rushing dog with blockage to vet

Some of the key symptoms to watch for include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Abdominal pain or distension

Even if your dog is only showing mild symptoms, it’s recommended to take them to the vet right away for evaluation. An intestinal blockage can quickly become life-threatening if left untreated. According to Frontier Pet, dogs with a complete blockage will typically die within 3-4 days without appropriate treatment.

Only a veterinarian can diagnose an intestinal blockage and determine the proper course of action. Don’t try home remedies or wait for symptoms to worsen. Early intervention greatly improves the chances of a successful outcome. Your vet may recommend imaging tests, bloodwork, IV fluids, surgery, or other treatment options depending on your dog’s condition. But the sooner you seek veterinary care at the first signs of trouble, the better your dog’s prognosis will be.

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