Before I entered the exam room, the technician briefed me on the situation.
"Gracie has not eaten for three days and her owner is missing a sock - she thinks Gracie ate it."
A derisive snort escaped before I could control it.
"She knows she's missing one sock?" I said with a chuckle, "You should see the unmatched sock pile in my house at this minute - I wouldn't know if my dog ate a pile of socks!"
"Me, either," said the tech and we both giggled, albeit seriously impressed by anyone who knows where all their socks are on any given day - laundry day or not. I said as much to the owner while I examined her dog.
"I keep good track of my socks because Gracie eats them," the owner told me. In fact, Gracie had a history of eating and regurgitating whole socks twice in her young life. She was an energetic one-year-old pit bull terrier, and spent much of the exam hopping around and happily trying to kiss me.
Her physical exam was normal in every aspect. She appeared to feel no pain, was not dehydrated, had nothing unusual in her abdomen as far as I could tell by palpating her and she wasn't bloated.
Sara said she had not vomited at all - she simply refused to eat. She had been drinking water and keeping it down. She had even had a bowel movement that was normal during the three days.
Given Gracie's history, and the fact that her owner was so attentive about her laundry, being certain one of her socks was missing, we decided to admit Gracie for some tests. When I saw the radiographs (x-ray pictures) I was relatively certain the owner was right: the stomach was full, but the rest of the intestines were apparently empty, aside from some stool that was in the colon.
Now, on a radiograph, there is no way to tell a sock from a stomach full of kibble or, say, trash from a wastebasket, so we postponed until morning the decision to take Gracie to surgery.
It's a big decision in a case like this. Aside from not eating, she was normal in every other way.
Repeat radiographs the next morning showed the stuff in the stomach had not moved, which was enough for me to be convinced we had a problem - we performed a gastrotomy (opened the stomach) that day.
So, let's discuss. Why do dogs eat stupid things?
In my experience, there are a variety of reasons.
The first is due to the dog's natural need to chew.
It is something we cannot remove from their genetic wiring, no matter how much we may wish it.
Chewing is an important exercise for the jaws of a predator, and is a darn relaxing way to spend some down-time for these creatures. Some dogs chew more than others, but all seem to enjoy it when given the proper stimulation in the form of a wonderful chew toy, table leg, article of clothing, or wastebasket contents.
Dogs also like to shred things, ripping and tearing with their teeth. It is part of dissecting the meat from the bones, so to speak, and is apparently very rewarding, sort of like the sound of breaking glass to a guy. (What is that all about? I don't get it, but then, I'm female.)
The act of chewing is a natural pastime for a dog,and swallowing items that are being chewed is only natural in most instances.
Some dogs, like Gracie, will eat/swallow a non-food item (termed a "foreign body") as a method of keeping it away from someone who might take it. This also is part of the hard-wiring of a predator like a dog, since working hard to bring down his lunch means he has a vested interest in keeping others away from it. The fact that a protected item is not food is unimportant to the dog at that moment. Logic plays no part here - a survival instinct takes over.
An obvious reason an animal may eat foreign material is because it is covered with something yummy. Like, for instance, the sharp pieces of a pudding cup I removed from a Standard Poodle's stomach a few years ago. Sometimes animals simply make a terrible mistake. Cats have a tendency to be attracted to strings and things that dangle (thread, yarn, tinsel, drapery cord, etc.) or things that make crinkly noises, like plastic bags. Cats also like to play with wire twisty ties, and many times end up swallowing them in their enthusiasm with "making a kill." Anyone who's ever seen a cat hunt, kill and eat an insect will see the obvious parallel here.
What else do we see animals eat? You might be surprised.
Favorite items are articles of clothing, bedding, toys (pet and children's), rocks, wood, trash and bones. Some of the more unusual items have been cassette tapes, a syringe - ingested while on a walk alongside the Susquehanna River (!), coins and a rubber gasket.
And those are just the ones that come to mind. Ask any veterinarian, and they'll name half a dozen of their favorites.
Some folks want to know if their animal has a nutritional need for something perhaps lacking in the diet, thus causing them to eat foreign bodies.
There is a condition called "pica" in which animals and even children do just that: they eat dirt and other non-edible things in response to a mineral deficiency in the diet, typically iron. But the vast majority of foreign body ingestions are more behavioral than medical.
It is highly unlikely a dog or cat or ferret eating a good-quality commercial diet of kibble or canned food is suffering from a dietary deficiency.
How do you keep your pet from eating things they shouldn't?
Unfortunately, the only tried and true way is to be vigilant and tidy. Keep things like sewing kits locked away from cats. Don't decorate with tinsel. Don't leave Barbie lying around on the floor. Keep the garbage under control and in a spot where an animal can't rummage through it (even wild animals get into trouble over garbage - a friend of mine said she had to rescue a raccoon from almost falling into her pool, with a soup can stuck on his head.)
This all seems like common sense, but accidents do happen. That's where we come in. If you are aware, like Gracie's owner, that something is missing, and your animal is acting sick in any way, it's a good idea to schedule an exam.
Not sure whether to be concerned? When in doubt, call. You may be told to wait and watch, you may be told to come in immediately.
And for goodness sake, if a string is hanging out of the animal's anus, don't pull on it! Call your veterinarian ASAP and get that animal in. Strings are bad, bad, bad.
On occasion, surgery is done, yet nothing is found. This is highly bothersome to the veterinarian, who, like a car mechanic saving the bad part for the owner, has nothing to show and tell. Not to mention all the fruitless work of looking around in the abdomen for the foreign body, which usually takes longer than a positive exploratory surgery - it's a real downer.
But, folks, that is the art of doing medicine. Sometimes we need to make life-and-death decisions, and we may guess wrong. Our patients have a lot of trouble telling us what's bothering them.
Even hospitals for humans do surgeries that come up "negative."
There is an old adage in veterinary medicine about this situation: "It is better to have a negative exploratory than a positive autopsy."
The last thing an owner wants to hear is that they were right about their dog eating that rubber gasket - only too late. Death from peritonitis is an awful way to go.
So what happened with Gracie?
When Gracie was waking up from anesthesia, I called her owner with the update.
"She's doing fine, and did well through the procedure," I began, "but you know that missing sock you were concerned about?"
"Yes?" she said, anxiously.
"Well you're still missing it, I'm afraid," I said.
"No, I'm not," I said, "You are, however, also missing FOUR other socks, but we found those - two pair, matching, one set with cute little nurses on them."
"Four ?" her voice trailed off.
She was stunned, but finally saw the humor in her unfortunate situation, and was, of course, relieved that we found the answer to Gracie's problem.
When I removed the fourth sock from Gracie's stretched stomach, I was pleased to see her GI tract in good shape.
I also feel much better about my unmatched sock collection, now, since Gracie's owner is fanatical about keeping track of all her socks, and still can't find the one she noticed missing in the first place.
In her defense: it's one thing to account for the unmatched socks, but one would have to be an organizing genius to account for pairs of missing socks. If you can do that, you need a hobby.
When Gracie came back to see me for her post surgical examination, she bounced in and gave me the customary kisses all over my hands, arms, knees and anywhere else she could manage. She had healed up beautifully, recovering from her ordeal as if nothing unusual had happened.
In fact, this goes out as a warning to all owners of dogs that like to eat things that they shouldn't: they'll do it again.
Dogs don't learn from these experiences. I once saw a pit-bull that liked to eat gloves. He had two gastrotomies and did fine. Unfortunately, the third glove killed him; surgery was done too late.
Now, Gracie happens to be one of those dogs mentioned earlier that likes to swallow things to keep them away from her owner.
She eats a very good diet, and to my knowledge, does not have a cotton/lycra deficiency.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.