The Silent Killer: Bowel Obstruction in Your Dog: Toys and Other Causes…

“…Bowel Obstruction Surgery” are 3 words a dog owner never wants to hear. But worse than that is the agony of losing your best friend. My heart aches for my friend and her five young children.They just lost their 4 year old dog. 4 years is much too short a life to live.

The worst part is that it could have been prevented, several times. This article certainly isn’t to make anyone feel bad, so names and other facts have been changed. Shaming people is never appropriate. But, as a veterinary technician I could see all of the lifesaving signs that they missed. He Had a Bowel Obstruction

So what happened? Unfortunately cancer and disease can strike at any time. I recently had another friend whose one year old Corgi mix died of cancer. We are told that mixed breeds are healthier, but even the mixes can suffer and die from disease.

But this friend’s dog chewed on and swallowed something he shouldn’t have, and it is something that is well known within the veterinary world to kill dogs. It was a rope toy.a commonly swallowed dog toy

How many times have you gone to your local big box, pet, or feed store and picked up a new toy for your beloved family dog? How many times have you given that new toy to him and then walked away… I mean, it’s a toy. It’s safe, right?

Many toys pose a danger to dogs that shred them. Even more pose a danger to dogs that eat and swallow pieces of them. Luckily, for some dogs and owners, the average toy or piece of toy will pass. However, very rarely do rope toys or pieces of rope toys pass through the bowels without causing an obstruction.

The strings ball up in the stomach or in the small intestine and it begins to bunch and kill the intestines as things cannot pass through. If caught early, surgery can remove the rope and save the life of the dog. If it is not caught early enough, the bowels begin to die and necrosis sets in and causes infection and sepsis.

What Can You Do? If you have a young dog, or a dog that swallows anything but food, DO NOT BUY YOUR DOG A ROPE TOY!

If you do allow your dog to play with a rope toy, only do so while he is directly supervised!! I NEVER leave my dog with a toy or item (sock, bed, blanket etc.) that he might shred and consume. I am definitely an advocate of using toys in your dog training program to build drive and also to add fun to regular dog training and you can read more about that here and here. Just be careful which toys you choose.

What is a Bowel Obstruction?


A bowel obstruction, also known as a mechanical obstruction or gastrointestinal obstruction can either be a complete or partial blockage that prevents solids or liquids from passing through the gastrointestinal tract. This blockage can also decrease blood flow to the bowels, causing deterioration and absorption of toxic contents.

ultrasound to find dog bowel obstruction


Foreign bodies can also cause the intestines to bunch into each other like a telescope.

Seek veterinary attention as soon as you suspect your dog has ingested something that could cause a blockage.


Symptoms of a Bowel Obstruction


  • vomiting
  • lethargy
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite
  • dehydration
  • bloatinglethargic dog might signal bowel obstruction


So often a dog will vomit a little bit and act a bit lethargic and his owner won’t notice. Perhaps he will vomit his meal, or act not interested. This can be an indication of mechanical obstruction.

His owners may try and treat it with over the counter medications or probiotics. They may even use medication previously given to the dog for incontinence or diarrhea. The problem with these approaches is that you only have a matter of a couple of days to take your dog to the veterinarian and have it diagnosed.

If you ignore it, or try to treat it yourself; your dog could die. So, if your dog isn’t acting quite right; take him to the veterinarian and allow them to run diagnostics, it could truly save your dog’s life!

This Helps Your Dog's Gut

Probiotics can help get your dog's gut working right again, and improve nutrient absorption to help with multiple health issues.

Try A FREE Bottle Today

What Causes Bowel Obstruction?

There are two types of bowel obstruction in dogs: gastric outflow obstruction and small intestine obstruction. Gastric outflow obstruction occurs when there is a blockage, in the part of the stomach that connects to the small intestine. A small intestine obstruction occurs when there is a blockage in the path of the small intestine.

There are many problems that can lead to both types of bowel obstruction, but by far the most common is ingestion of foreign bodies. Dogs are curious creatures, puppies especially, and they like to explore, often with their mouths. This sometimes means consuming items that they shouldn’t, such as sticks, rocks, fabrics or toxic materials and eating a flower pot

Other dogs are serious chewers who easily break apart toys, balls, bones, or rawhides and swallow the pieces. Yet the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dog toys, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission only regulates pet toys that can be proven to put consumers (people, not dogs) at risk.

In addition, puppies are at risk for gi tract blockage caused by severe roundworm infestation.

Diagnosis and Treatment


Many veterinarians and veterinary specialists are trained in the use of a tool called an endoscope. Endoscopes combine a very small camera with a very bright light source on the end of a flexible tube. The tube is inserted into the esophagus of an anesthetized patient, and can be advanced through the stomach and into the proximal part of the small intestine to visualize foreign bodies causing blockages.

Grabbing tools can be advanced through the tube and in the case of small foreign bodies, used to retrieve the foreign bodies. Most endoscopes are not long enough to extend past the initial part of the small intestine, so foreign bodies that are farther along cannot typically be retrieved.


Most gastrointestinal obstructions need to be removed surgically. If the obstruction has only been present for a short period of time, a simple enterotomy can be used to remove it. The longer an obstruction is present, the more likely that the intestinal blood supply is compromised and the intestines immediately above and below the obstruction are devitalized.

surgery to remove foreign object in dogIn these cases a procedure called a resection and anastomosis must be performed, the entire section of devitalized bowel removed, and the ends rejoined. This is true as well with tumors that are growing from the walls of the intestines and obstructing the inside. There are potential complications associated with both procedures, however resection and anastomoses have a higher percentage of them.

The canine equivalent of Crohn’s disease in people is known as inflammatory bowel disease. Dogs receive some of the same treatments as humans to manage the condition. It can take some time for you and your vet to find the right dietary and medical combination to help your dog. Once you find what works, it’s likely your pet will require that diet and possibly those drugs for the rest of his life.

What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is not a specific disease. Rather, it is a specific reaction that the stomach or intestines have to chronic irritation. The intestinal lining of a dog with inflammatory bowel disease becomes chronically inflamed, resulting in a lack of proper nutrient digestion and absorption. The constant irritation causes thickening of the bowel wall, which affects the ability to move food.

Inflammatory bowel disease may occur because of an allergic reaction, but the majority of cases are idiopathic, meaning there is no known cause.

What are the clinical signs of IBD?

If the stomach is involved, your dog will have chronic vomiting. If the intestines are involved, chronic diarrhea will occur. This is the most common form. In some dogs, both parts of the digestive tract are involved, so both vomiting and diarrhea occur. If the disease occurs for several weeks to months, weight loss and poor appetite are common.

Symptoms of IBD include vomiting, weight loss, lethargy and fever, but the most obvious signs revolve around fecal output. Affected dogs experience diarrhea, and eliminate more often than normal. The loose stools come from the small bowel, rather than the large bowel.

Other than the diarrhea, your dog may appear fine. Inflammatory bowel disease symptoms most often occur in middle-aged dogs. While any dog can develop IBD, the disease is more common in German shepherds, Rottweilers, cocker spaniels, boxers, Shar-Peis and Yorkshire terriers.

Dog Have Diarrhea?

Probiotics can help get your dog's gut working right again, and improve nutrient absorption to help with multiple health issues.

Try A FREE Bottle Today

How is IBD diagnosed?

The chronic irritation that causes IBD stimulates the body to send cells from the immune system to the affected area. The most commonly found cells are lymphocytes and plasmacytes. Occasionally, eosinophils and neutrophils will be found. Thus, the disease is diagnosed when these cells are identified in abnormal levels in the tissue.

In order to obtain these cells, a biopsy is required. In most cases, an endoscope is passed into the dog’s stomach or colon. A tiny biopsy instrument is passed through the endoscope and used to take small samples of the lining of the affected organ.

Since the symptoms of IBD mimic those of many other diseases and conditions, your vet must rule out other possibilities — such as intestinal parasites — before determining that IBD is the culprit.

How is IBD treated?

The ideal way to treat this problem is to diagnose the underlying disease that is causing the reaction. Some dogs with IBD respond to a change in diet. This is done in two ways.

diet change can sometimes help a dog pass a bowel obstructionFirst, a food is chosen that contains a protein source that the dog has never had, such as duck or fish. If that is not effective, a high-fiber diet is tried. Unfortunately, a true food trial requires that the test diet be fed exclusively for four to six weeks.

If dietary therapy is not successful or feasible, drugs are used to suppress the inflammatory reaction.


Medication for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

The steroid, Prednisone is commonly used, given in higher doses initially and lowered when symptoms appear under control. This can have substantial side effects, including weight gain, frequent drinking and urination. Your dog’s response to the medication depends on how long he must take the drug. Some dogs require lifetime administration, while others need it only if symptoms flare up.

Dietary Treatment

Some dogs respond well to dietary changes and don’t require much, if anything, in the way of medication. Your vet can help design a diet for your dog’s needs, but there might be some initial trial and error involved. One thing these diets have in common is a lack of preservatives and additives found in many commercial dog foods.

Because of the allergic component of IBD, your vet might recommend a single source protein diet, containing venison, duck or other less common meats. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight — expect to wait a few months to see if the diet is working. There’s no one-size-fits-all food for IBD dietary therapy. High fiber foods work for some dogs, while others improve on low fiber meals.

What is the Prognosis?

If a response occurs to diet change, the dog can be maintained on this diet for the rest of his/her. If the dog responds to medication for stomach bacteria, a good prognosis is justified. If response occurs to corticosteroids, the long-term prognosis is also good if administration of the drug is feasible. However, if there is no response to diet or corticosteroids, the prognosis is more guarded. At that point, further testing is suggested to see if an underlying disease can be found.

The Bottom Line

As a dog parent, it is important to be hyper aware of what your dog is putting in his mouth.

  • Avoid balls with single air holes, which can create a deadly suction trap; sticks and stones; heavily dyed toys; toys treated with fire retardants or stain guard; soft plastics.
  • Supervise play.
  • Choose toys to fit your dog’s size and avoid those he can work to the back of his mouth.
  • Select toys that match your dog’s play style.
  • Keep a variety of toy types on hand; rotate to spark your dog’s interest.
  • Don’t use toys as a substitute for interaction.



Start Calming Down Your Over Excited Dogs Today!

Your First Lesson’s FREE:

Sign up below and we’ll email you your first “Training For Calm” lesson to your inbox in the next 5 minutes.


  1. Claire Beach says:

    I appreciate the information you share,my Havenese loves to chew paper and plastic I often wonder if he swallows it and would he pass it


  2. Finn says:

    Our young, beautiful, clever German Shepherd puppy had to have surgery a week ago as a result of a blockage to the bowel caused by a rope toy. She made an initial recovery but became sick again a few days ago, despite daily monitoring by her original vet at our insistence. It now looks like she has a second blockage, despite the fact that we let her nowhere near a rope toy )or anything else that might cause a blockage) in the days following her surgery. All we can presume is that there was yet more chewed string further back in the bowel that the vet missed during the first operation. She is just about to go in for a second surgical examination (with a new vet) but is too weakened by the initial surgery to be capable of surviving the removal of yet more sections of her bowel. At best she’s been given a 10-20% chance of survival. Utterly, awfully heartbreaking. We are devastated and filled with guilt at the needless pain and suffering caused to her. Yet even after all what has happened to her, her original vet still insists that rope toys are okay for puppies to use as long as they are carefully supervised. This is is complete and utter rubbish. Our puppy was never left alone to play by herself yet no-one ever warned us of the dangers of these toys. My advice to all dog owners- not just those with young puppies- is to put your dog’s rope toys in the bin and then warn your fellow dog lovers of the dangers of having them in the house.


  3. Marlene says:

    Our sweet 1 year old Border Collie, Willow, died from chewing on and swallowing string from a rope toy. We initially took her to the vet with concern she was suffering from a bowel obstruction. She wouldn’t eat, couldn’t defecate, she was lethargic, but the main symptom was vomiting. We took her to our regular vet clinic, but was surprised to see a vet we had never seen before. He was nice, and offered anti-nausea pills, antibiotics, and anti-parasitic oral medicine. He took two radiographs and said she was clear from any bowel obstruction. He suggested she had gastroenteritis. Which can be cause from a bacterial or viral infection, or a parasite. They administered an under the skin IV and sent us home with the same medicine she received from him at the time of the visit. That was it. No further instruction, or advice.. nothing.

    I syringe fed Willow the wet dog food they sent us home with, along with water every two hours for 3 days. Monday I called the vet with a great deal of concern that Willow wasn’t showing signs of improvement. They told me to bring her straight in, when I did, our usual vet was there to take care of us. He immediately felt the obstruction and Willow underwent emergency exploratory surgery. Vet called me a few times during the surgery to tell me she had a linear obstruction. The string had perforated Willow’s small intestine. He also warned me of the risks we were taking in order to try to save Willow’s life. My husband and I urged the vet to do whatever it took to keep our Willow alive, He called us one last time to tell us he was making the professional decision to stop the efforts and that she had too much damage to her small intestine.

    I think Willow would still be here today had the bowel obstruction been caught in the first visit. I regret allowing her to play with unsafe toys, and I ultimately blame myself for her death. To everyone that owns a dog (or cat) DO NOT ALLOW THEM TO PLAY WITH ROPES, TOWELS, LEASHES, CLOTHING of any sorts.. IT COULD END THEIR LIFE! Help us spread awareness, so these deadly objects can stop the deaths of our sweet friends.

    I love you Willow, and I miss you so much!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *