My cat ate a string! What should I do?
Animals swallow stuff they shouldn’t. There was a story in The Boston Globe about a bulldog who swallowed 19 baby pacifiers. Luckily, cats are smarter than that. Right?
Wrong. Cats swallow stuff they shouldn’t, too. One of the worst things that they can (and do) swallow, is something most cats love to play with: string.
Compared to 19 baby pacifiers, a bit of string seems harmless.
It’s true: sometimes a swallowed piece of string will pass harmlessly into your cat’s litter box. But sometimes, a bit of swallowed string can become you and your cat’s worst nightmare.
Whatever you do, if you see a bit of string emerging from either end of your cat, DO NOT PULL IT. I’ll explain why, in a minute.
But first, let’s talk about string, why cats love it, why they eat it, and why it’s so dangerous.
What is a linear foreign body in cats?
If your cat swallows string, your veterinarian is going to refer to that string as a “linear foreign body.”
“Linear” just means like a line, and “foreign body” just means something that doesn’t belong inside your cat.
What kind of objects are “like a line” that your cat is likely to be interested in?
- Thread, which can sometimes still have a needle attached
- Dental floss
- Christmas tinsel
- Easter grass
- Rubber bands
- Fishing line
- Cords of any kind, including those attached to children’s toys.
Why do cats play with string?
Let’s take one step back and ask why cats play at all, with anything.
Play is a lot like hunting. The behaviors are similar, and the kinds of movement and sounds that attract a hunting cat, are the same ones that make certain toys more appealing.
Interestingly, research shows that cats don’t play to become better hunters. In fact, the only thing that makes a cat a better hunter is more experience actually hunting. But most cats seem to have a need to act out the hunt through play anyway.
For outdoor cats, or feral cats, there are a lot of inanimate objects that seem to move and make sounds: fallen leaves that crackle underfoot, dried grass that sways in the wind, and dandelion seeds that get carried away on air currents.
But string seems to have an appeal all its own.
I think it’s the very stringiness of string that piques a cat’s interest. String often moves unpredictably: tug one end of a shoelace, and the little metal or plastic aglet causes the other end to flip and flop. Ribbon unfurls, rubber bands twist, and holiday tinsel or grass crinkles.
Even without your help, played-with string can sometimes move and sound, from an imaginative cat’s standpoint, a little like prey.
Why do cats eat string?
There are two possible reasons why a lot of cats end up eating the string they’re playing with, and they might be related:
Cats take the “hunt” too far. There’s a certain order of events when it comes to hunting for cats. It’s called the prey sequence. The prey sequence goes like this:
- Stalk or chase
- Pounce or grab
- Kill bite.
It’s possible that a cat who is “hunting” a piece of string will feel a need to finish the job. Chomp!
A cat’s tongue almost forces a swallow. A cat’s tongue is covered in little backward-facing hooks called papillae. The hooks look like little cat claws, and they have sharp tips, which you’ve probably felt if you’ve ever been licked by a cat.
Once a cat grabs a bit of twine, or thread, those backward hooks kind of dig in. Without hands, a cat can’t easily dislodge something that’s stuck, to bring to the front of their mouths to spit out. They almost have to swallow it.
What can happen if a cat swallows string?
The best-case scenario if a cat swallows a piece of string is that it just makes its merry little way through the gastrointestinal tract and out the exit, right into the litter box.
It happens: in one scientific study of 24 cases of linear foreign bodies in cats, “watching and waiting” worked like a charm for nine of the silly string-swallowing kitties. The rest required surgery to save their lives.
How a string gets stuck in a cat’s gastrointestinal tract
The worse-case scenario happens when a string gets stuck, and it happens a lot.
A string could get stuck on the tongue. A string could get wrapped around the cat’s tongue, like this poor cat:
Cat wasn’t eating. The thread almost went through his whole tongue.
by u/putlotioninbasket in VetTech
A string tightly wound around the tongue could cut off circulation. A tongue in this condition would look swollen and purple.
A string could get anchored in the stomach or intestines. A string, especially if it was knotted or tangled, could get caught up in the pylorus, the passage at the end of the stomach.
A swallowed string could also become stuck at any point along the gastrointestinal voyage from mouth to anus.
What happens if a string gets stuck?
The problem, when it comes to stuck strings, is peristalsis.
Peristalsis is the involuntary, wave-like contractions that squeeze food through the intestines. Here’s a cartoon video explainer that shows how peristalsis works in humans. It works the same in cats.
Peristalsis gets the string moving until it’s trailing all the way down the gastrointestinal tract. But the stuck end won’t allow the string to go any further.
But peristalsis continues anyway, and causing the intestines to “climb” up the string, getting bunched up like a hair scrunchie.
And still, peristalsis continues. By now the trailing string is taut, like a piano wire. And as the intestines move against this tight wire, it begins to saw through the intestinal lining.
If a cat with a linear foreign body isn’t in the capable hands of a vet by now, the contents of the gut can leak out into her abdomen, causing a severe infection (called peritonitis), that can result in death.
In scientific study of 64 cats with linear foreign bodies in which nearly all required surgery, most of the cats recovered. But, only 50% of the cats who had lacerations in their intestines from the string, survived.
How do I know if my cat swallowed a string?
Sometimes you know if your cat swallowed a string. Your shoe may have a partial lace. The fishing-rod toy you meant to put away the last time you used it, is missing its line. You witnessed the string go down your kitty's gullet.
But what if you don’t know for sure? If a swallowed string is becoming a problem for your cat, you may see these signs:
- A decreased appetite
- Straining to poop
- Your cat’s belly is painful to the touch
- Your cat is unwilling to lie down, or seems like he can’t get comfortable.
- Hiding (more than usual)
Symptoms of a linear foreign body might begin one to two days after swallowing the string, but they could also develop slowly over a longer period of time.
What should you do if you think your cat swallowed a string?
Call your vet. This is not the time to wait it out without professional advice. Your vet may recommend waiting to see if your cat passes the string (usually within 10-24 hours). Or, your vet may want you to bring your cat in for an exam.
Follow professional advice, as your cat’s life may depend upon it. A study of 12 cats with linear foreign bodies, in which four ended up dying, determined that early diagnosis and treatment was difference between a happy outcome and a terrible one.
Meanwhile, keep your cat indoors and check the litter box frequently. Even if your cat passes some of the string, it doesn’t mean that she has passed all of the string. Unless you know exactly how much string is missing, stay vigilant and watch your cat for changing symptoms.
What should you NEVER do if your cat has swallowed a string?
If you see a bit of string under your cat’s tongue, in your cat’s throat, or protruding from your cat’s backside, do not, do not, DO NOT pull on this string.
Doing so could cause life-threatening internal damage to your cat’s gastrointestinal system.
If you have already contacted your veterinarian, and there is a long piece of string trailing behind your cat, you may gently trim some of it off for his comfort, and for sanitary purposes. That is all.
What your vet might do about a swallowed string
Your vet might take an X-ray or an ultrasound of your cat’s belly to see if there is an obstruction, or if your cat’s intestines have begun to bunch up (or plicate, in vet terms).
Your vet might perform bloodwork to check on your cat’s organ function, electrolyte balance, and whether her blood count is showing any signs of infection.
Your vet might perform an endoscopy, a minimally invasive procedure that will allow her to see inside your cat’s body. If she can follow the string all the way to end and confirm that it’s not stuck, she might be able to pull it free, avoiding a more traumatic surgery.
Or, your vet may have to perform an exploratory laparotomy, a special surgery to explore the gastrointestinal tract, locate and remove the string. The extent of the surgery, and your cat’s prognosis, will vary depending upon how much time the string was stuck, how much damage it caused, and the length of the intestines that were involved.
How to keep your cat from eating string
The only way to prevent your cat from ingesting string is to make sure that he has no access to string.
- Avoid using tinsel on the Christmas tree, and keep presents wrapped with ribbon or twine out of reach.
- Do not leave knitting or sewing projects, or your sewing box out.
- Put away fishing-rod and wand toys when you and your cat are done playing with them.
- Keep a lidded wastebasket in the bathroom (for dental floss).
- Be aware of possible string-containing products, such as children’s craft kits.
Is it ever OK for a cat to play with string?
There are so many potential dangers in an indoor cat’s world, including those related to boredom and lack of exercise.
Cats really enjoy playing with string-like objects, especially with you, and it’s a great way for them to use their bodies and minds.
If you can train yourself to keep string-like toys out of reach of your cat when you’re not around, I think supervised play with string is OK.
Just be vigilant if your cat seems intent on chewing or biting the string. Find another toy for the time being, and take the string out to try again another day.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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