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Dogs put everything in their mouths, and all too often, they swallow something they shouldn’t. Blockages caused by ingesting foreign objects account for a large percentage of the gastrointestinal problems seen by veterinarians, and gastrointestinal problems are second only to skin problems when it comes to causes for dog insurance claims.

AKC Chief Veterinarian Dr. Jerry Klein spent 35 years as an emergency veterinarian. “Trips to the vet and especially the emergency vet, due to vomiting, are some of the most common presentations,” he says. “The suspicion of obstructions is often a differential in many of these cases until ruled out with radiographs or ultrasound.”

Often, the veterinarian has to play detective. “Cases of people actually knowing their dog has an obstruction are questionable, as except in rare cases. Most owners don’t know if, let alone what, their dogs ate,” he says.

What Causes Intestinal Blockage in Dogs?

The list of foreign objects that vets have found inside dogs reads like a Believe-It-or-Not post: stones and rawhides are favorites, but also all sorts of balls, especially golf balls; plastic and rubber toys, lightbulbs, curlers, hairbands, underwear, and even a cell phone. One dog had 43 pairs of socks surgically removed. Another had swallowed a 10-inch toy arrow, and another even swallowed a fishing rod almost as long as they were. One dog swallowed a shish kabob skewer that migrated through the dog’s tissues to its heart, requiring open-heart surgery to remove.

Some breeds are more likely to swallow foreign objects. Dr. Klein says that he often sees Labrador and Golden Retrievers, as well as Bernese Mountain Dogs, for intestinal blockage issues.

Golden Retriever chewing on a treat laying down in the yard.
©Khaligo -

Food Blockages

Certain foods can also cause blockages. Dogs love to eat corn cobs, for example, and while this can seem harmless, it’s usually not. Once in the dog’s intestines, these chewed-up cobs don’t digest and can cause a hard blockage. Some dogs also love to eat nuts, sometimes while they’re still in the shell. Unfortunately, these nutshells don’t dissolve. Dogs with access to nut trees, like hickories or pecans, may swallow the nuts whole, creating blockages. They can do the same with mango, avocado, or peach pits.

Ingesting Foreign Objects

Objects that are long and linear, like string, yarn, ribbons, bungee cords, and clothing, present a special hazard. As the intestine contracts, the object can’t move. Instead, the material can start to erode the lining of the intestines, which could eventually lead to perforation.

Dr. Klein notes that linear foreign bodies can cause parts of the intestine to ride over other parts in what’s known as a telescopic manner. This condition is called “intussusception,” and cause cause significant damage because it blocks bloodflow.


While it’s the most common cause, foreign objects aren’t the only cause of intestinal blockages. Intestinal tumors or masses, severe intestinal parasite infestations, severe intestinal inflammation, hernias, torsion (twisted intestines), masses from fungal infection or pythium, scar tissue, or perforations can also cause blockages.

According to Dr. Klein, foreign objects top the list when it comes to intestinal obstructions. As for other causes, he says they’re lower on the list. “Intussusceptions are usually not too common; they’re seen mostly in younger puppies. Hernias are lower on the list. Mesenteric torsions are not common but can be deadly.”

Symptoms of Intestinal Blockage in Dogs

Bichon Frise puppy chewing on the rug.
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Initial signs of an intestinal obstruction can include one or more of the following:

  • Vomiting: Vomiting is the single most common sign of a lodged foreign body, but of course, dogs can vomit for many other reasons. If vomiting is accompanied by any of the other signs listed here or if it persists for more than a day, is severe, smells like feces, or has blood or a coffee-ground-like material in it, contact your veterinarian.
  • Gagging or retching: If your dog tries to vomit without producing anything, this can actually be a more worrisome symptom than vomiting itself. Repeatedly trying to vomit unsuccessfully, when accompanied by restlessness, reluctance to lie down, or any signs of abdominal bloating, should be treated as possible bloat or gastric dilatation-volvulus and treated as an extreme emergency.
  • Lethargy: Lethargy is a sign the dog doesn’t feel well. If it’s accompanied by any of the other signs here, or persists for more than a day, it’s time to see the veterinarian.
  • Drooling: Drooling more than normal can suggest nausea or a foreign object lodged in the dog’s throat or stomach. If the drool is much more than normal, accompanies any of these other signs, or persists for more than a day, contact your veterinarian.
  • Loss of appetite: Sometimes dogs just won’t be hungry for a meal or so. But, if it’s highly unusual for your dog, or if their loss of appetite accompanies any of these other signs or persists for more than a day, see your veterinarian.
  • Diarrhea: You wouldn’t think diarrhea would be a sign of a blockage, but it can be. Sometimes the blockage is partial, so it blocks just enough so that only liquified wastes can squeeze past, while solid feces or undigested food remains blocked. If diarrhea accompanies any of these other signs, or if it persists for more than a day, see your veterinarian.
  • Straining to poop: As the intestine fills up with feces that can’t pass, the dog may become increasingly uncomfortable and repeatedly try to poop. Even if it’s simple constipation, if it persists for more than a day your veterinarian may have to intervene.
  • Restlessness: Unusual restlessness is often a sign of discomfort, nausea, or pain. If it accompanies any of these other signs, or if it persists for more than a day, see your veterinarian.
  • Painful abdomen: If your dog tries to hide or protect its abdomen from you touching it, this likely indicates abdominal pain that probably can’t wait. Call your veterinarian immediately to see if it must be treated as an emergency.
Sad golden retriever lying on the ground. Looks like crying
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  • Prayer position“: Also called the position of relief, if the dog repeatedly puts its forelegs, including elbows, on the ground with its hind end still standing (in a position resembling the play-bow) and stays there for a few seconds, this often indicates a painful abdomen.
  • Bloating: If your dog is restless, has made repeated unsuccessful attempts to vomit, and their chest or abdomen is suddenly bloated, this could indicate bloat or gastric dilatation volvulus. This should be treated as an extreme emergency that a veterinarian must tend to immediately.
  • Whining as in pain: If your dog isn’t usually a whiner, whining can often indicate nausea or pain. You may be able to gently press on the abdomen to see if the pain is located there. If so, your dogs should probably be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

What Is the Timeline for Intestinal Blockage in Dogs?

While you don’t want to be an owner who rushes to the emergency vet because your dog stubbed its toe, signs of intestinal blockages warrant a “better safe than sorry” attitude. A true blockage will rarely get better on its own, and the longer you wait, the worse it gets, and the more damage it does. Any sign that could indicate possible bloat or gastric dilatation volvulus should be treated as an extreme emergency, one where you rush to the closest emergency veterinarian day or night.

Signs such as repeated and heavy vomiting, vomiting with fecal- or blood-like material in it, bloody diarrhea, painful abdomen, repeatedly taking the prayer position, or any combination of two or more signs, should warrant a vet visit that same day. All others should see the veterinarian within 12 to 24 hours if the signs are still occurring or even sooner for any severe symptoms. It’s certainly worth calling your veterinarian for an opinion as to when to come in.

“In cases of intestinal perforation, time is of the essence,” warns Dr. Klein. “In my experience, three days is getting to be too long of concern.”

©Евгения Шихалеева -

There are no home remedies for obstructions. While some smaller foreign bodies will eventually pass, larger ones will more likely stay put or eventually form a blockage as the intestinal tract narrows. Meanwhile, bad things can be happening. With increasing time, the normal digestive process is disrupted, nutrients aren’t properly absorbed, and wastes back up. As it increases, this waste (and a foreign object) can push against more of the intestinal wall. This buildup can cause increased pain, potentially cut off blood supply, and damage or kill the intestinal tissue. Linear foreign bodies can do even more damage. For example, a string can saw through the intestinal walls as the walls contract and move around it.

Prolonged obstructions can also cause a dog to become dehydrated, malnourished, and eventually go into shock due to fluid and electrolyte imbalance. They can also cause peritonitis, in which the stomach lining becomes inflamed, or sepsis, in which infection releases chemicals causing multiple organs to become inflamed. Segments of the intestinal wall can be choked off from proper circulation, leading to their death. All of these conditions are potentially deadly. Their signs can include prolonged vomiting, rapid breathing, pale gums, yellow eyes or skin, lethargy, and seizures.

Partial obstructions usually have less severe signs that may come and go. However, they can become total obstructions as they move down toward narrowed parts of the intestinal tract.

At the end of the day, it’s better to go to the vet than to wait, even if you’re not sure your dog is sick. If there is a blockage, and surgery is needed, the chances of it succeeding are much greater if you haven’t waited until your dog is suffering from malnutrition, or parts of its intestine have already died off. In addition, your veterinarian can sometimes monitor a foreign body using repeated radiographs to see if the blockage is moving down the intestinal tract.

Although giving your dog a drug to prevent vomiting might seem to help, if the cause is an ingested foreign object, it won’t make the situation worse. One study found that dogs that were treated with an anti-vomiting drug had an increased time between the first symptoms and going to the vet, and a lengthier stay at the vet hospital, but no increased complications. Unfortunately, there is no effective home treatment.

Diagnosing Intestinal Blockages in Dogs

Bulldog puppy getting a check-up at the vet.
©mutluproject -

If the veterinarian suspects a blockage, the vet will usually start with a physical exam, gently pressing on the dog’s abdomen to feel if it’s unusually taut or painful. If the obstruction is large enough, the vet may be able to even feel it. They may also use more sophisticated imaging techniques, such as radiographs (X-rays), which can determine some but not all obstructions. Foreign bodies made of stone, metal, plastic, porcelain, or rubber, for example, are easily visualized.

Sometimes they’ll feed a contrast dye solution, such as barium, to the dog. The veterinarian will then take a series of X-rays as the solution travels down the dog’s digestive system. If the dye stops before reaching the other end, it’s conclusive evidence that some sort of obstruction is present. If the intestine appears shortened and bunched up, it’s indicative of a linear obstruction that must be treated surgically. If the foreign object doesn’t pass completely within 36 hours, or stays in the same location for more than 8 hours, surgery is required.

While veterinarians generally use radiographs to detect intestinal obstructions, ultrasounds are better able to detect foreign bodies in the stomach. To detect foreign bodies in the esophagus, endoscopes work best. In some cases, an exploratory surgery, or laparotomy, may be required to find the object.

Treatments for Intestinal Blockages in Dogs

Sometimes, the veterinarian will administer intravenous (IV) fluids. These help the dog with hydration and sometimes can help loosen a blockage so that surgery isn’t needed. But most of the time, surgical removal is the option of choice — and very often there’s no other choice at all. If the veterinarian is already performing exploratory surgery, the foreign body will be removed at the same time.

In most cases of complete blockage, immediate surgery is necessary to remove the cause. This is especially true if there are signs of intestinal perforation.

Pregnant Samoyed lying on its side on an exam table with a vet listening to her stomach with a stethoscope.
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Dr. Klein advises that the only time to put off surgery is when a dog hospitalized while trying to stabilize the dog as much as possible. “Having an animal well hydrated on intravenous fluids can sometimes cause movement of a foreign mass along the intestinal tract. However, getting by the sphincters is always a challenge,” he adds. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action in situations like this.

Surgery involves anesthetizing the dog, locating the blockage, then cutting through the intestinal wall to remove it. The veterinarian should evaluate the intestine’s viability by examining its color, blood supply, and peristalsis. In some cases, so much damage has already occurred that part of the intestine will not survive. When this occurs, it must be surgically removed and its ends must be reattached to each other. If a cancerous tumor or infectious mass is suspected, the surgeon may cut out a larger area to be sure to include any margins. The surgeon should inspect the entire intestinal tract for other foreign bodies, masses, signs of perforation, peritonitis, or intussusception.

What Is the Survival Rate for Intestinal Blockage Surgery in Dogs?

If surgery is performed before secondary problems such as perforation or peritonitis occur, the prognosis for blockages caused by foreign bodies is excellent. Prognosis is slightly better for non-linear foreign objects than for linear ones, but both are still good. The outcome for cases presenting with sepsis or peritonitis depends, based on severity.

Prognosis in other cases depends on the cause. For example, intestinal cancer caused by intestinal lymphoma has shown better response to chemotherapy than other types of intestinal cancer in dogs. Overall, though, intestinal cancer carries a poor prognosis.

Growths caused by Pythium are a sign of more widespread infection with that organism, so dogs must undergo treatment with antifungal medications for as long as a year thereafter to be cured.


Blockages caused by hernias, torsions, or intussusception can usually be successfully treated with surgery as long as too much damage has not been done.

Golden Retriever getting comforted while lying on a table at the vet.
alexsokolov/Getty Images Plus

If the veterinarian must remove a large part of the intestines, there is an increased risk of post-surgical complications. This can result in short-bowel syndrome, when so much of the intestine is removed it can’t absorb enough nutrients. These dogs have a guarded prognosis.

No matter the cause, surgery can be expensive, running from about $2000 to $8000 depending on how much other damage is involved. Depending on the situation and whether you have pet insurance, the average cost of a foreign body ingestion in dogs can be anywhere from $800 to $5000.

In some cases in which a foreign body is lodged in the dog’s upper intestinal tract, your vet can remove it using endoscopy. In this procedure, a long tube with a camera and a set of forceps is passed into the stomach and into the upper intestine. The vet then manipulates the forceps grasp the object and pull it out through the dog’s mouth. While this procedure has the advantage of being less invasive and less expensive, it’s not an option for all cases of intestinal blockage.

Preventing Intestinal Blockages in Dogs

Labrador retriever puppy chewing on a plant it knocked over.
©New Africa -

Unfortunately, dogs can swallow anything. Recognizing that this is a possibility is one of the best ways to prevent intestinal blockage in dogs. Clean up areas of your home or yard where your dog can reach, especially if they’re a puppy or have a history of foreign objects. Anything within reach could potentially be swallowed, so putting things away, or keeping them higher up, can help stop them from ingesting them in the first place. Keep garbage cans under the sink, or use ones that can lock. Refrain from giving your dog rawhide chews or any bones they could swallow. Play only with balls or toys that are too big for your dog to swallow, and that they won’t be able to tear into little, bite-size pieces.

Some dogs tend to be repeat offenders, especially of certain objects. Many of these dogs eat things like socks, underwear, or hickory nuts, requiring surgery after surgery until their owner learns to put things out of reach, or cut down or fence off nut trees. Pay attention when you’re walking your dog, so that if you’re in an area with tree nuts, you know to keep an extra eye on your dog.

Keep an eye on your dog, so if they do swallow something before you can reach them, you’ll know exactly what it was, and can call your veterinarian and ask for instructions. Knowing what’s normal for your dog is the single best prevention. In this way, you notice what’s abnormal, and you can get a veterinarian’s opinion as soon as possible.

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.
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