Bowel obstructions in dogs can be dangerous—know the signs.

February 3, 2023 - 5 min read
illustration of a dog with a sock in his stomach appearing in an x ray

Many diseases can make dogs vomit or display other signs of a gastrointestinal problem, but one of the most serious is a bowel obstruction. When dogs eat something that isn’t easily digested or suffer from certain other conditions, they can develop a bowel obstruction, which may also be called a gastrointestinal (GI) blockage.

What Are Bowel Obstructions in Dogs?

The gastrointestinal tract is essentially a long tube with different parts serving different digestive functions. When any part of that tube becomes blocked and food and water can’t easily pass by, you’re dealing with a bowel obstruction.

Bowel obstructions can be partial or complete. With a partial obstruction, the tube isn’t completely closed off. With difficulty, some food and water may be able to pass by. A complete bowel obstruction is a different story, however. The tube is sealed off and essentially nothing can get through.

Both types of bowel obstructions are serious and require quick treatment, but complete blockages can quickly turn into emergencies.

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What Causes Bowel Obstruction In Dogs?

The most common reason for dogs to develop a bowel obstruction is eating something that they shouldn’t have. Dogs (especially puppies!) love to chew, and they often explore their worlds with their mouths. This can lead them to swallow things that aren’t meant to be swallowed. Toys, clothing, dish towels, bones, large pieces of rawhide, rocks, garbage — if you can name it, a dog has probably eaten it. If the object is small enough, it may pass through the GI tract and come out in the dog’s poop, but larger items are likely to get stuck somewhere along the way.

Bowel obstructions can have other causes too. Tumors, abscesses, and granulomas (inflammatory masses) may form inside the GI tract or somewhere else in the abdomen and press against it. Large numbers of intestinal worms sometimes clump together and cause a blockage. Scar tissue can lead to a stricture — an abnormally narrow area. A section of the intestines may telescope inside of itself, creating a condition that is called an intussusception, and parts of the GI tract can twist or move into unusual positions, blocking the passage of food and water.

What Are the Symptoms of Bowel Obstruction?

Whatever the cause, the symptoms of a bowel obstruction are similar to those seen with many other GI problems. They can include:

  • Vomiting. In severe cases, dogs may vomit feces.

  • Producing small amounts or no stool

  • Diarrhea

  • Poor appetite

  • Dehydration

  • Abdominal pain

  • Depression or restlessness

  • An enlarged abdomen

Symptoms tend to come on more quickly and be more severe with a complete rather than partial bowel obstruction. However, a dog’s condition can deteriorate very rapidly, so don’t wait to get your dog the care they need if you think that they may be suffering from a GI blockage. Many of the clinical signs associated with a bowel obstruction can also be seen with gastric dilatation and volvulus (bloat), which is a veterinary emergency.

Prevention and Diagnosis

Bowel obstructions can be fatal without appropriate and oftentimes expensive treatment, which is why prevention is so important. Keep potentially dangerous things that your dog might want to chew on out of their reach. For example, block their access to garbage, don’t let your dog chew on bones or sticks, and make sure that their toys are too big to be swallowed. Even rawhide can be dangerous. Aggressive chewers do better with toys made from durable, dense rubber. Monitor your dog, and if a chewie gets small enough to be swallowed, take it away.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to prevent all bowel obstructions in dogs. Talk to a veterinarian immediately if you think your dog has swallowed something inappropriate or is starting to show signs of GI blockage. Your veterinarian will need to perform a physical examination and probably take some X-rays or perform an ultrasound to confirm the obstruction and determine what is causing it and where it is located. Other tests, like a blood chemistry panel and complete blood cell count, may also be necessary to evaluate the dog’s overall condition and plan appropriate treatment.

Treatment for Bowel Obstructions in Dogs

The quicker a dog who has a bowel obstruction receives treatment, the better. The longer blockages remain in place, the more damage they can do and the sicker dogs become.

Surgery may not be necessary if a swallowed object is tiny or still in the esophagus, stomach, or first part of the small intestine. Dogs can sometimes pass a very small object on their own. Your veterinarian may recommend that you feed your dog a special diet, and may want to monitor the object’s progress through the GI tract with repeat X-rays. Once it has reached the colon, your dog should be able to poop it out. Another option is to remove the object using an endoscope with an attachment that allows the doctor to grip it and draw it out through the dog’s mouth. Your dog will need to be put under anesthesia for an endoscopic removal.

Most other cases of bowel obstruction require surgery. It is necessary to:

  • Remove large foreign objects that have moved past the first part of the intestinal tract

  • Remove tumors, other masses, and scar tissue

  • Correct an intussusception

  • Put abdominal organs back into their normal positions

During surgery, the doctor will also assess the health of tissues that have been damaged and repair or remove them, if necessary.

Post-operative care is critical to a dog’s recovery. Rest, antibiotics, pain relievers, and a bland, easily digested diet are often necessary for a week or two after surgery. Monitor your dog’s incision, appetite, and overall well-being, and contact your veterinarian immediately if you notice their condition getting worse rather than better.

The Cost of Treatment

Treatment for bowel obstructions can be expensive. Getting your dog to the veterinarian quickly, before too much internal damage has been done, is the best way to keep costs down. An initial evaluation that includes a physical examination and X-rays will probably run a couple of hundred dollars. From there, the cost of treatment will vary depending on the cause of the obstruction, how sick the dog is, and other factors. It isn’t unusual for surgery for a bowel obstruction to cost between $1000 and $3000. Bills can even reach $10,000 in very complicated cases

For many pet parents, it isn’t easy to come up with several thousand dollars to pay for emergency veterinary surgery. A bowel obstruction is just the type of situation where pet insurance can truly save a dog’s life! Purchasing a policy from a respected company like Many Pets will give you the peace of mind of knowing that your dog can get the care they need when they need it.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.