Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstruction is a blockage of the small intestine or colon that prevents food and fluid from passing through. Intestinal obstruction can be caused by many conditions, but it’s most often the result of foreign body ingestion and tumors. Intestinal obstruction can result in an array of uncomfortable signs, including abdominal pain and swelling, nausea, and vomiting. If left untreated, intestinal obstruction can cause the blocked parts of the intestine to die (become necrotic). This tissue death can lead to perforation of the intestine, severe infection and shock. However, with prompt medical care, intestinal obstruction can often be successfully treated.

Signs and symptoms of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lethargy
  • Decrease in appetite and water intake
  • Inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas
  • Swelling of the abdomen (distention)
  • Fever

Because of the serious complications that can develop from intestinal obstruction, you should seek immediate medical care if your pet develops the signs listed above.

Many conditions can cause intestinal obstruction. The causes often differ, however, depending on whether the obstruction occurs in the small intestine or in the colon. “Mechanical” obstruction occurs when something — such as a foreign body, hernia or tumor — is physically blocking the intestine. Blockage of the intestine can be partial or complete. Ileus (pseudo-obstruction), a condition in which the intestines don’t function properly, may have the same signs and symptoms as mechanical obstruction, but no physical obstruction is present.

Conditions that increase the risk of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Ingestion of strings, toys, clothing or any other foreign material
  • Previous abdominal surgery
  • Other intestinal diseases that could cause intestinal inflammation

Intestinal obstruction can also cut off the blood supply to the affected portion of the intestine. If left untreated, a lack of blood causes the intestinal wall to die. Tissue death can result in a tear (perforation) in the intestinal wall, which can lead to peritonitis, an infection of the lining of the abdominal cavity. Peritonitis is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical and surgical attention. Peritonitis may cause your pet to go into shock.

To confirm a diagnosis of intestinal obstruction, your veterinarian may recommend abdominal X-ray, abdominal ultrasound, blood work and urinalysis. These tests also help your veterinarian determine if the obstruction is ileus or if it’s a mechanical obstruction, and if it’s a partial or a complete obstruction. Specific treatment depends on the cause of the condition.

Complete obstruction, in which nothing can pass through the intestine, is a medical emergency that requires immediate surgery to relieve the blockage.

If you are ever concerned that your pet has an obstruction it is very important that you contact a veterinarian immediately.