Symptoms When Your Cat Swallows a String

When it may be time to call the veterinarian

Kitten Playing With a String

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Kittens and adult cats both love to play with string, ribbon, and cords. But this brings with it the risk that your cat will swallow the string, which can lead to serious complications in some cases. As a cat owner, you need to be aware of the dangers of string ingestion and the signs that the string is still in the gastrointestinal tract.

What Happens When Cats Swallow Foreign Bodies

"Linear foreign body" is the veterinary term for string and similar long, thin things that cats can ingest. Your cat may have gotten access to fishing line, yarn, dental floss, or even some long types of grass that aren't easily chewed into pieces. These can remain intact as they pass through your cat's digestive system.

Sometimes this is uneventful, but at other times the linear foreign body can become bunched up and cause a blockage. Rough edges or attached needles or hooks can cause internal irritation or even a perforation, resulting in a serious infection.

Another problem occurs if the string gets caught around the base of the cat's tongue and so it can't be passed, even as the other end is now deeper into your cat's stomach or gut.

Signs and Symptoms After Swallowing a String

Your cat may have no symptoms after swallowing a linear foreign body. Maybe you observed your cat playing with a string and chewing on it; then the string was gone. You assume it was swallowed, but your cat continues to act normally.

If there are no complications, your cat should pass the string in 10 to 24 hours in its feces. The problem is that it is often impossible to know how much your cat ate and whether any is still in its digestive system.

These symptoms can develop if there is difficulty in the linear foreign object progressing through your cat's digestive system:

  • Vomiting or dry heaves
  • Anorexia or decreased appetite
  • Straining to defecate or diarrhea
  • Painful abdomen
  • Fever
  • Depression
  • Dehydration (due to vomiting)

The appearance of clinical signs can be immediate or more long-term, depending on the amount of foreign body material ingested and whether and where it is hung up. Typically, signs will appear in one to two days. However, there are cases where a cat has eaten something weeks prior and showed only minor symptoms.

Treatment

If you see the string under the tongue (extending down the throat) or protruding from the anus, it is important to never pull the string. This can make the damage much worse as the string "accordions up" the gastrointestinal tract, possibly tearing fragile tissue and causing a deadly infection.

Always call your veterinarian for advice when you believe your cat has swallowed a linear foreign object. If you see the string under the tongue, take your cat to the veterinarian so it can be removed safely.

You should also see your veterinarian if any of the more serious symptoms have developed. Even if you think the cat has passed all of the string in its feces, there may still be some in its stomach or gut that is causing problems.

If your cat is passing the string from its anus and has no concerning symptoms, you can clip the string with scissors so it is shorter. While nature may take its course, it is best to see your veterinarian for a quick check. This is a case of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." 

If there is any string present in the gastrointestinal tract, the longer you wait, the greater the chance the string may cause serious tissue damage, infection, and a possible rupture. Your vet can help you determine the best course of action.

Your vet will start with a physical examination and palpation, and that may be all that is needed. If there is any question, an additional workup may be performed, such as radiographs or blood work. If there are complications and your cat won't be able to pass the linear foreign object on its own, your veterinarian may need to perform an endoscopy or surgery.

Prevention

Use supervision and caution with pet toys. Toys are great for fun and exercise, which cats need. But it is important to anticipate that pets may break, tear, or ingest part or all of a toy, causing problems.

Always consider safety when buying toys for pets and make your dwelling as cat-safe as possible. Keep yarn, fishing line, ribbons, strings, and even stray used dental floss where your cat can't get to it.