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Pets' eating habits tough for veterinarians to digest

| Sunday, April 4, 2004

Sticks and gravel, stones and bones, women's panties and nylon hose. Coins, cassette tapes, diamond rings, a butcher knife, socks and rags.

Veterinarians have seen -- and removed -- these articles and more from pets.

"We've had cats and dogs eat a variety of objects,'' said Dr. Joe Matuskowitz, a veterinarian at Latrobe Animal Clinic. "Coins, plastic ornamental grapes, but especially golf balls. They seem to be a favorite of a lot of dogs."

Schnapps, a 6-year-old Dachsund who is a patient at the clinic, made frantic demands to go outdoors every few minutes, but was unable to get rid of whatever bothered him. Finally, he was able to expel a 10-inch length of plastic wrapper.

"I've found that dogs are more troublesome than cats. They eat a wider variety of things. They're less discriminating," he added.

One of Matuskowitz' favorite tales involves a Labrador retriever that swallowed a golf ball. After the vet induced vomiting, the dog expelled the ball -- only to have it bounce twice and be eaten again.

"He was really a great dog, one of the all-time really nice guys. But not the most dazzling intellect," he recalled.

Another patient ate a pair of pantyhose.

"All in one piece. It pretty much filled his whole intestine. We removed it, but it didn't survive."

Matuskowitz, who attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, recalled a case that occurred there when he was in school. A dog swallowed a 10-inch butcher knife. The animal's esophagus was opened to remove it.

"I was on the emergency shift right after it happened, and the whole place was buzzing. He was doing fine afterward," he added. The incident became the subject of a story in Smithsonian magazine, which Matuskowitz has kept on his desk.

Some animals, he said, have a passion for eating socks.

"A dog's philosophy is 'swallow it now, and worry about it later,'" he said. "You know they'll swallow anything. And if you try to get it away from them, they'll frustrate you because they think you want it. So you have to offer them something better than they already have. They might drop the other object."

Dr. Debra Petracarro, of Greensburg Veterinary Associates Inc., is vehement in her warning that "there are no good bones."

"They all fracture, they all splinter and they can be extremely dangerous," she said, adding that she's done enough exploratory operations, and an occasional post mortem, to back up her assertion.

Petracarro said an area farmer called her with the complaint that one of his cows wasn't eating. She expected a normal "house call" and was not prepared to perform emergency surgery.

"One stomach was out of place. So I borrowed a straight razor and a shape knife from the farmer, opened her up and put the one stomach back where it belonged," she said.

She felt something unusual.

"I kept pulling and pulling and removed a giant black plastic garbage bag. After I sewed her up, she stood up, went over to the feed and started eating," she said.

Another patient, a small Dachshund, seemed otherwise fine, but threw up several times a day. An X-ray revealed a shadow in the dog's stomach.

"It was a super ball the kids had been playing with, and somehow, the little dog got it down."

A standard poodle became a three-time loser with her mistress's panties.

"I was really angry," Petracarro said. "It was carelessness on the owner's part. I threatened to put a zipper in the dog to make it easier to remove things in the future.

"When she left, after the third episode, I followed her out to the waiting room, and, in front of the other clients, I held up a Baggie with the panties and said, 'Oh, you forgot these.'"

Petracarro said when a medium-sized dog swallowed a child's retainer, it required surgery to remove it. The mother wanted it back for her child.

"She said, 'Oh yes. As much as they cost, it'll teach him a lesson.'"

At Lakeview Animal Hospital, Dr. Ron Stas said he's seen serious toxicity in animals from zinc pennies minted after 1982. He explained that the coins are prone to corrosion, which creates ragged holes in their center that can tear the stomach lining.

Although larger dogs, like Labrador and golden retrievers, might be able to pass them, the coins can be serious obstructions in smaller animals.

"Many dogs are fond of chewing non-food items, and they cause the most trouble," Stas explained. "Labs, especially, have this habit. It is a behavior thing, ingesting items like sticks, stones and gravel."

Stas said he's had several episodes with a weimaraner who chewed plastic and fibers from a sofa. The materials ended up in the dog's stomach, balled up and matted.

A mini Doberman pinscher swallowed its owner's nylon hose and a cassette tape.

"Linear foreign bodies," Stas added, "like string, fishing lines, yarn, can get looped around the animal's tongue or lodge in the intestines, causing them to bunch up, and often cutting through them. And cats, especially, like the tinsel on Christmas trees."

The veterinarians agreed that pets are apt to pick up almost anything -- on purpose -- or by accident. Some may be harmless and easily passed, but others, like bones, sticks or objects with sharp points, can and do, wreak havoc.

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