When To Worry About Your Dog’s Bowel Obstruction

dog ate a tennis ball

Bowel obstruction or gastrointestinal blockage in your dog is a frightening problem.

It could happen if your dog gulps her raw bones. Or maybe she guzzles contraband on walks … or gets into the garbage, counter-surfs or chews up her toys.

And it can be a real emergency. 

So, in case it happens, I want to tell you how to recognize it … and what to do about it. 


What Is Gastrointestinal Obstruction?

A GI obstruction happens when there’s a partial or complete obstruction of the flow of fluids and solids through the digestive tract … starting at the stomach and continuing to the end of the rectum. 

This is a fairly common problem.

And it’s one that can lead to acute illness – and even death – in a pretty short space of time. 

Bowel Obstruction in dogs can vary from mild (partial obstructions) to severe (complete obstruction, with or without perforation of the digestive tract).

So it’s important to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms, and to understand when your dog needs to go to a vet. 

Symptoms Of GI Obstruction In Dogs

Your dog is going to be obviously unwell if she has a complete obstruction. Partial obstructions are often less obvious, with only low grade symptoms. 

If your dog is showing any symptoms, consider whether she’s had access to bones, toys or other potential foreign bodies recently.

If your dog is obviously getting sicker, don’t hesitate to get to the vet. Obstructions may need urgent surgery to save her life. 

The take home message is don’t sit on it. Some dogs may only show mild symptoms … but slowly fade and get more and more listless. 

Does Your Dog Have A Blockage?

These are some potential symptoms of an obstruction.


If your dog is off her food it could be an early or ongoing warning sign … especially if she’s normally a good eater!


Dogs vomit very easily, so you only need to get concerned if there’s repeated vomiting.

If your dog vomits many times in a day, especially for more than a day or two … (and if she has other symptoms) … then get to the vet.

If there’s blood in the vomit, it’s more reason to worry.


Dogs with GI obstructions often develop a runny bottom. In some cases this may have blood in it. Bloody diarrhea can indicate a more severe problem.

Depressed Or “Flat”

Most dogs with a GI obstruction will progressively become depressed, flat, and less responsive to their owners, other dogs, or anything.

Again … if your dog has any of the other symptoms and is fading like this, get her to the vet urgently.


With vomiting and diarrhea, your dog will be losing fluids. Also, intestinal damage and inflammation can cause even more fluid loss.

If your dog has tacky, sticky gums when you run your finger in between her lips and the area above her top teeth, it usually means significant dehydration. 

Abdominal Pain

Most dogs with GI obstruction have a painful abdomen … often very painful. Your dog may not want to be touched on the tummy. Or she may groan and be tense and wide eyed when you touch her there. 


Depending where the blockage is, your dog may develop a swollen or bloated stomach over time. 

Be aware of the symptoms and never ignore your bump of trouble. If you think something isn’t right with your dog, you need to listen to that!

Beware Bloat!

If your dog has these symptoms, she may have bloat or gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV) get her to the vet ASAP.

  • Sudden bloating
  • Showing distress
  • Trying to vomit without producing anything
  • Rapidly getting worse

Bloat is a life or death emergency and needs immediate veterinary attention.

Causes Of Blockages In Your Dog

Blockages can be caused by internal problems or foreign bodies.

Internal Reasons for Blockage

Internal problems may be:

  • A tumor growing large enough to block the flow-through
  • A stricture due to damage from ulceration
  • Adhesions from prior surgery
  • Severe inflammation of the GI tract causing swelling 

Foreign Bodies

Foreign bodies are a more common cause.

This means any non-digestible objects your dog swallows, such as …

  • Balls or toys
  • Clothing
  • String
  • Trash
  • Bones (especially cooked)
  • Sticks
  • Rocks or stones
  • Seeds
  • Metal objects
  • Coins
  • … or any number of things your dog may gulp down!

Not surprisingly, puppies are more likely to eat strange things. 

How Harmful Is A Bowel Obstruction?

The amount of harm done will depend on

  • The nature of the object
  • Size of the object
  • How long it’s been stuck in there
  • Where it gets stuck
  • Degree of obstruction

Partial obstructions cause less harm than total obstructions. 

Some materials will cause harm because they’re poisonous (like lead objects) … or corrosive (like batteries).

String-like or sharp objects may puncture the bowels and lead to peritonitis.

Peritonitis happens when gut contents leak into the abdominal cavity. It’s a rapidly spreading infection and it causing rapid severe illness … with septic shock not too far down the road. Peritonitis is an urgent and life-threatening medical emergency.

Even without perforation, the continual vomiting and diarrhea from a blockag can lead to life- threatening dehydration and electrolyte imbalances over time. 

Diagnosing Bowel Obstructions

There can be several ways to diagnose a blockage in your dog.

Blood Work

When you get to the vet, the first thing they will want to do is to run some bloodwork to see if there are any other possible causes for the symptoms.

That’s always a good idea!


Then your vet will probably want to take some x-rays of the abdomen. X-rays are often diagnostic for GI obstructions.

Barium Meal X-Rays

If plain x-rays are inconclusive and your dog isn’t too unwell, your vet may give a barium meal … then take a series of x-rays to see how far the digestive system moves the contrast.


Ultrasound scans can be very useful in imaging foreign bodies, too. 

Treatment For Bowel Obstructions

Some foreign bodies will work their way through and out the other end, but only if they’re fairly small and not too damaging to the tissues.

Some foreign bodies in the stomach can be removed by endoscopy

Unfortunately, many cases will require surgery to resolve the problem. This could be the solution for a tumor, a restriction, or a foreign body.

If the foreign body is in the stomach, the surgery is relatively simple.

If the blockage is in the intestines, sometimes it’s as simple as making an incision and popping out the object before stitching it all back up.

Other times if there is severe damage … your vet may need to remove multiple sections of the intestines and stitch the healthy ends back together. 

Your dog will probably need to stay in hospital on intravenous fluids for some time … usually until she starts eating and having bowel movements again.

Then there will be a period of recovery when you get home. Most dogs recover well, but some dogs can have ongoing issues. 

If surgery is needed, the sooner the better. This is because the longer the blockage is there, the more the tissue gets damaged, and the sicker your dog gets. 

So there you have it. Try not to let your dog find indigestible objects to eat!

But be prepared, just in case.

Be aware of the symptoms and never ignore your bump of trouble. If you think something isn’t right with your dog, you need to listen to that!

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