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The Dangers of Accidental Ingestion for Sporting Dogs

Ingestion-related maladies are among the most common and troublesome for working dogs.

The Dangers of Accidental Ingestion for Sporting Dogs

Working dogs tend to be disproportionately injured or killed by environmental maladies, whether accidentally ingested or not. (Photo courtesy of Seth Bynum)

Dr. Mark Hayes looks over the landscape of his native southern Ohio from the perspective of a working dog and sees potential catastrophe everywhere. There are backyard mushrooms and mold from household compost that can cause fatal neurological toxicity, blue-green algae on the farm ponds that can cause liver failure, and inside homesteads there’s recreational marijuana that can send dogs into catatonic shock. There are the old evils: rat poison and antifreeze. As well as new perils like Xylitol, the artificial sweetener in chewing gun and toothpaste, that can doom a dog to a fatal hypoglycemic spiral.

Working Dogs and Accidental Ingestion

Hayes, a veterinarian at a mixed animal clinic in Mt. Orab, Ohio, says working dogs—our hyper-driven canine companions that traverse rural landscapes and fight their way into tight quarters in search of prey—are disproportionately injured or killed by environmental maladies, whether accidentally ingested or not.

“I’d say I see more purebreds in trouble over accidentally ingesting something or contacting something injurious, than any other type of dog,” says Hayes. That’s because gun dogs commonly bull their way past the cautionary cues that might cause a less driven dog to stop short of serious, life-ending injury. “A working dog is, well, working. They don’t often sit idly in a kennel. If there’s something to chew on, they’re working on it.”

But this story isn’t only about those environmental toxins that our hard-headed dogs can inadvertently encounter. It’s also about those everyday hazards that somehow find a way into their mouths and digestive systems. There’s socks and chew toys—the ones with hemp rope handles are the worst—that can get hung up in the intestinal tract of dogs and slowly abrade the colon walls. There are pieces of cork, old shoes, and the lining of a dog bed, all things that should never end up on the inside of a dog, but often do.

If you notice warning signs that your dog may have ingested something harmful, imagery at the vet may be needed to identify the correct steps to take moving forward. (Photo courtesy of Seth Bynum)

Ryan Lott knows all about those innocuous perils that hide in plain sight—in his case, his fenced backyard.

“It was cottonwood twigs. That and grass, and a shocking amount of bark, too.”

Lott is talking about the constituent elements of a wad of organic material that had to be surgically removed from the upper intestines of his yellow Lab, Murphy, who wasn’t even a year old at the time.

“I thought Murph was just playing fetch with those sticks, and maybe chewing on them because his teeth were coming in,” says Lott, an upland hunter from northeastern Montana. “But he was ingesting it all, and it damned near killed him. Three years later it still affects his digestion, but it also affects my relationship with him. If I have him out now, he’s always on a leash, and always under supervision. Obviously, the reason for the over-protection is that we don’t want him to go through this again; I don’t think I could handle it, either emotionally or financially.”

Assessing problematic ingestion

Dogs are going to eat some unfortunate things. It’s what they do, sharing consumptional relish and abandon with pigs, bears, and certain 4-year-old humans. But some ingestion is more distressing than others, and how you react to their physical and psychic cues will determine much of what comes next. Whether it’s a cautionary story you tell your hunting buddies, or whether it’s emergency surgery and harrowing recovery, along with four- and even five-figure vet bills.

While Dr. Seth Bynum hasn’t worked as a clinician in a few years—these days he specializes in canine reproduction—the Idaho vet has plenty of experience diagnosing the symptoms of unfortunate ingestion.

“If you didn’t witness the consummation of an item, usually the manifestation [of gastro-intestinal distress] is a lot of vomiting, retching, and general malaise. Every dog acts a little bit differently, so it’s hard to say those are the exact symptoms you should look for, but every dog owner knows when their dog is off, and those are the leading indicators that something is wrong with their gut.”

If that lethargy and light retching becomes more acute, or they refuse food and water for over a day, you should be thinking about a vet visit.

“Retching up clear liquid is basically the body’s attempt to deal with the massive amount of inflammation that’s being caused by that foreign object,” says Bynum, who notes that if the discharge turns to a viscous substance, or carries a stale, sour, or rotten smell, then it’s time to take more invasive action.

“The barometer is different for every dog and every person,” says Bynum. “If you’re worried, get help. For me, that threshold first is uncontrolled vomiting and then that putrid discharge. That’s a sign that food is blocked, it’s the body’s attempt to shove a bunch of lubricants into the GI tract to get something to pass.” 
The veterinary response to this situation is first to assess. Is the retching getting less or more acute? Is the dog going into any sort of gastric shock? Does abdominal palpation reveal any obvious obstruction? Partial obstructions, or those high in the digestive tract, can be managed through either an emetic, an agent that induces vomiting, or a Barium swallow that allows vets to track radioactive dye to detect the specific spot of a clog.

“In my experience, it’s usually pretty easy for a dog to get things to the stomach,” says Bynum. “The place where I’ve pulled more foreign obstructions out surgically is the pylorus, or the place where the stomach tapers down and enters the duodenum, or the upper small intestine. That’s a bottleneck.”

It’s when obstructions get jammed at the pylorus that dogs start to react with the grass-eating, retching, and looking at you like they are passing a bag of nails. When obstructions make it into the intestinal tract, veterinarians start talking about methods of extraction. This is where Murphy’s obsession with wood products started to cause problems and make things very interesting for Lott.

“I had two options: either have emergency surgery, or Murphy would have to be put down,” says Lott. “Pretty easy decision. The surgery was successful. My vet said his stomach was completely packed with wood, grass, and bone. Still not sure where the bone came from.”

Over three years later, Murphy still has digestive tract problems, managed through a diet of medicated food (at $120 for a 22-pound bag). But his outcome is among the best dogs can expect at the end of these internal traumas. Had Murphy eaten washcloths instead of wood, Lott might not now have the luxury of buying high-priced food.

“Many obstructions pass through the stomach and start making their way down the small intestine,” says Hayes. “But the intestines get frustrated when they encounter something that won’t pass through, and they respond by shutting down. It’s rare for something to get stuck in the intestines and not move forward, but it can happen. In my experience, it’s often a fabric of some sort.”

The diabolical detail about fabric—socks are notorious gut-pluggers—is that it’s porous enough to let liquids pass. Symptoms don’t show early or abruptly. But textiles are also abrasive, and often get hung up around one of the myriad bends and coils of the intestines.

“We [vets] often don’t get involved as early as we should. Dogs can usually drink and they can often eat,” says Bynum. “But fabric can cause guts to twist on themselves and stop all passage, or it can work as a sort of saw and slowly abrade through the intestinal wall. Any time you get intestinal flora in your abdominal cavity, it’s bad news. The dog is nearly always going to die.”

The Importance of Discloser at the Vet

Both Bynum and Hayes say that many emergency responses could either be avoided or resolved more happily if dog owners were more forthcoming about what their dog ate.

“A lot of times I get my diagnosis, or at least the direction of the diagnosis, based on the history of the owner and what kind of dog they have,” says Hayes. “It’s uncommon for a dog that doesn’t chew on things to be an 8-year-old dog that is starting to chew on things and gets an obstruction in their abdomen. But if the owner says they always carry around a sock, then you get an idea of the problem. You have to get a good history from the owner.” But Hayes says owners aren’t always forthcoming with helpful information.

“I think people are afraid we’re going to judge them,” he observes. “I have dogs come in with a belly full of marijuana, but their owner won’t tell me what they ate because they think I’ll report them. I don’t care. I just want to know if you have pot at your house or not because it might inform how I care for your dog when we don’t have a lot of extra time.” Out in Idaho, Bynum says cannabis toxicity is getting much more common as possession of recreational marijuana has become legal and widespread.

“Dogs might find a stash of edibles, or they get into butter made with THC in it,” he says. “Dogs are far more sensitive to THC than humans are, so a very little amount can really set them up for being majorly stoned. Dogs won’t die from that, but it can really mess them up.”

Beware of Enviromental Toxins

But both Bynum and Hayes say they’re seeing more dogs with mysterious maladies after encounters with novel toxins out in the wider world. Hayes says the prevalence of blue-green algae blooms in the Ohio River Valley is a major problem because it doesn’t take much ingestion for a dog to have either catastrophic or lingering liver problems.

Toxins released during algae booms can cause serious life-threatening health challenges for a working dog. (Photo courtesy of John Hafner)

“It generally expresses itself in the first 24 to 48 hours after exposure,” says Hayes. “The problem is that it’s not a specific symptom. You might see poor appetite and vomiting, but more likely it’s going to be yellowing of the tissues. If you see the whites of a dog’s eyes turn yellow, and the gums are similarly jaundiced, that’s an indication of liver shutdown.”

Various fungi are also pernicious poisons and are increasingly common back East. “I think some of these dogs that come in with liver problems have been out sniffing around mold spores in the yard,” says Hayes. “In the Ohio Valley, we have just a ton of environmental fungal organisms. I have a good friend who runs coon dogs all over Hell’s Half Acre, and all his dogs have gotten multiple hits of a fungal organism called ‘blastomycosis’ that can affect the respiratory tract, heart, and even the eyes. It can also cause liver problems.”

In the Pacific Northwest, compost bins are a frequent source of potentially fatal fungi. “There’s a certain type of neurotoxin in some molds that grow in compost that will cause major neurological trauma—convulsions, tremors, and spikes in body temp up to 110 degrees,” says Bynum.

Bynum has also encountered an unexpectedly nasty toxin in the form of artificial sweetener. “The xylitol in toothpaste and chewing gum is something to watch,” he says. “Dogs love it because it’s sweet. The body treats it as a blood sugar compound and tells their brain that their blood sugar is spiking. The body compensates with a rush of insulin releases that then crashes the dog. They can become hypoglycemic and die.”

But veterinarians still treat plenty of effects from old, standard poisons. “I don’t see much antifreeze poisoning these days,” says Bynum. “Manufacturers have added bittering agents to the fluid, and almost everybody uses propylene glycol now, which isn’t as hazardous if consumed. But if there’s an old barn that has a stash of old antifreeze, that’s problematic. These days, if I see antifreeze poisoning, it’s usually a malicious thing, somebody deliberately targeting a dog.”

More common are encounters with rodenticide, old-fashioned mouse and rat poison. “The active ingredient in the old brands (like D-Con) is warfarin, which is an anticoagulant,” says Hayes. “It basically takes away the blood-clotting factor and animals bleed to death from internal hemorrhaging. Those animals tend to have pale gums, bruise easily, and you might notice they’re lethargic, have no energy and will be breathing heavily. If we can catch it quickly enough, treatment is usually a regimen of vitamin K-1.” Newer varieties of rat poison have active ingredients that cause renal shutdown, damaging the kidneys. If caught in time, fluid therapy might be able to save the dog.

“The one thing that can make the difference between a sick dog and a dead dog is information,” says Hayes. “If people can get the product packaging of the poison, and learn the active ingredient, it will help direct a course of treatment and that can make all the difference. I’d say that’s key, no matter whether a dog ate something poisonous or not.”

Early treatment is often the difference between a cautionary tale or potentially serious health consequences. (Photo courtesy of Brad Fitzpatrick)

A Watchful Eye

“Since his event, we have become very overprotective of Murphy,” he says. “It’s not often that he’s out of our sight, which means he’s on a leash in the backyard, day and night. Obviously, we don’t want him to go through this again, but I don’t really think it fazed him.”

The odds are Murphy will be back on a veterinarian’s table at some point, says Bynum. “There seems to be an issue with repeat offenders, and Labs are by far the breed most likely to engage in that sort of behavior. Once you have one open-abdomen surgery or gastrotomy, chances are pretty good that you’re going to have another one.” 

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