String Eating in Cats

Kitten Playing With a String

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Both kittens and adult cats love to play with string, yarn, and the like. But this brings with it the risk that your cat will eat 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 your cat's gastrointestinal tract.

Why Do Cats Swallow String?

While cats are naturally playful animals, they may be genetically pre-disposed to swallowing string (or other long, thin objects). It can mimic the ingestion of a prey's entrails.

Another reason may be your cat could have the obsessive-compulsive behavior known as pica. Pica is the behavior of eating non-food material. The most common material is wool (from blankets or socks), but some cats will eat paper, plastic, shoelaces, or string. If you suspect pica, talk with your vet to come up with a treatment plan for your cat.

What Happens When Cats Swallow String?

Linear foreign body is the veterinary term for string and similar long, thin materials that cats ingest. Your cat may have had access to fishing line, yarn, dental floss, or even long-leaved grasses that aren't easily chewed into pieces. These items often remain intact as they pass through your cat's digestive system.

Sometimes passage is uneventful, but at other times, the foreign body becomes bunched up and causes 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 can't be passed, even as the other end is now deeper into your cat's stomach or gut.

Symptoms of String Swallowing

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 your cat swallowed the string, but the cat continues to act normal.

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

Watch for symptoms that may develop if the string has problems moving 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 symptoms can be immediate, or they may manifest over time, depending on the amount of material ingested and whether and where it's hung up. Typically, symptoms appear within one to two days. However, it's possible that a cat ate something weeks prior and showed only minor symptoms.

Treatment

If you see the string under your cat's tongue (extending down the throat) or protruding from the anus, it's important to never pull the string. This can make the damage much worse as the string may "accordion up" the gastrointestinal tract, and pulling it could possible tearing fragile tissue and cause 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 around the tongue, take your cat to the vet 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's 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's shorter. While nature may take its course, it's 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's any string still present in the gastrointestinal tract, the longer you wait, the greater the chance the string will cause serious tissue damage, infection, or a possible rupture. Your vet can help you determine the best course of action.

What Happens at the Vet

The vet will start with a physical exam and palpation, and that may be all that's needed. If there's any question about the presence of a foreign object, they may perform additional diagnostic procedures, such as X-rays or blood work. In the event of complications or if your cat is unlikely to pass the string on its own, the vet may need to perform an endoscopy, which is a non-surgical procedure to explore the digestive tract (under anesthesia), or surgery. The endoscopy offers a real-time view of the string and can determine the next steps. It would usually be the first step prior to surgery.

Recovery from an endoscopy is usually pretty quick. The cat will likely go home the same day as the procedure. The vet will wait until they recover from the effects of anesthesia and then release them. Surgery can vary but may require an overnight stay.

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.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.