By Christie Long
The veterinary tables were turned on me early this week when my beloved Chihuahua Gizmo started Monday morning off by vomiting on the front seat of my car on the way to work.
As the morning progressed, it became evident that he was feeling quite ill, refusing to eat anything I offered him and generally lacking his usual swagger. Shortly before noon, I decided it was time to take some X-rays and get a look inside his abdomen.
There are many causes of vomiting in dogs, but one of the first things we think about in young, otherwise healthy dogs is a gastrointestinal tract blockage, either in the stomach or the small intestine, caused by the animal swallowing something it shouldn’t. We call this a GI foreign body and it’s extremely serious, because obstruction of the GI tract can result in potentially life-threatening complications.
Gizmo’s X-rays showed what I feared: a definite clump of “something” at a location in the small intestine known rather cumbersomely as the ileocecocolonic junction. This is the spot where the small intestine becomes the large intestine, by way of a pouch-like feature known as the cecum. This tortuous intersection of three anatomic features is a classic spot for small intestinal blockages.
Intestinal blockages become life-threatening if they persist because the object that is causing the blockage is putting pressure on the interior of the intestines, cutting off the blood supply and weakening the intestinal wall. Left unattended, the wall will eventually tear open and spill intestinal contents into the abdomen, causing a condition known as septic peritonitis, an infection of the abdominal cavity. Survival rates for this condition are low, even with surgery, so clearly the goal is to address the blockage before a rupture occurs.
Seeing Gizmo’s intestinal blockage, I had a decision to make. Should I take him to surgery, or wait a while, treat his nausea and dehydration, and see if the blockage passed into the colon?
I decided that since he was not currently vomiting and did not have severe abdominal pain, I would monitor him closely and keep him on intravenous fluids overnight. Often, rehydration can restore normal intestinal peristalsis, or movement, and gently encourage intestinal contents to move along. My plan was to take new x-rays in the morning and see if the rehydration had encouraged the blockage to move into the colon.
In the morning, Gizmo looked significantly brighter and he made my day when he deposited a chalky plug of a very hard, very dry substance that closely resembled cat litter on the ground. The X-rays showed a small amount of material remaining but no longer plugging his intestines and safely passing into the colon.
The possibility of intestinal blockage is why it’s important to take vomiting seriously. Not all vomiting is caused by a blockage, and sometimes blockages pass, but the decision to monitor a blockage should be made in concert with and under close supervision of your veterinarian.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their 5-year-old son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.