Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cats and String – a Dangerous Duo

By Julia Williams

We’ve all seen the classic image of a cute kitten playing with a ball of yarn. I’m not sure why, but most cats seem to really enjoy chasing string as its being dragged across the floor by their human playmate. Mine love a simple piece of string more than any fancy store-bought cat toy. Mickey is a couch-potato kitty, and if I can’t get him off his duff to play with the cat toys, all I have to do is dangle a string in front of his face and he’s off and running.

A piece of string or yarn is a cheap cat toy, and they can be great fun as well as good exercise for felines. However, what many owners don’t realize is that string can also be quite dangerous for their cat, and can even result in death. If the string is left out for the cat to find between playtime sessions, many kitties will start eating the string. Unfortunately, once they start swallowing the string, they can’t stop – they can only swallow more.

A cat’s sandpaper-like tongue has small backward-facing hooks called papillae that assist with grooming, eating and hunting. As useful as those uniquely designed tongues are, they make it nearly impossible for the cat to spit the string or yarn back out once they start swallowing it. The more string they swallow, the more life threatening the situation becomes.  

Why is Swallowing String Dangerous for Cats?

Swallowed string can cause strangulation, and it can also become wrapped around the cat’s intestines. Sometimes the string is able to pass through the digestive tract without harming the cat. Other times, the intestines can become blocked, pulled or torn by the string. Surgery might be able to save the cat’s life, but if the string cuts the intestines it can cause fecal matter to contaminate the abdominal cavity, resulting in a life threatening inflammation called peritonitis.

In addition to string and yarn, common household items such as embroidery floss, sewing thread, curling ribbon, rubber bands, tinsel, Easter grass, window blind pulls, and even dental floss can also be extremely dangerous if a cat ingests them.

What to Do If Your Cat Swallows String

First and foremost, if you see your cat eating string or see the string dangling from your cat’s mouth or rear end, DO NOT pull on the string in an attempt to remove it. This can make the damage much worse as the intestines can bunch up accordion-like around the string, and pulling on the string could cut the intestine or the esophagus.

If you know for certain that your cat swallowed string, yarn or something similar, it’s important to take them to your vet right away. If the string can be removed before it enters the intestines, your cat stands a much better chance at survival. If there is any string present in the gastrointestinal tract, the longer you wait, the more serious and life threatening it becomes.

If you suspect your cat has eaten string but don’t know for sure, the safest thing to do is to have your vet look them over and help you determine the best course of action. Because ingested string is so dangerous for cats, most vets don’t recommend a “wait and see” approach; however, if you do decide to take that route, be alert for the appearance of clinical signs. Usually, but not always, these will appear in one to two days. 

Possible clinical signs from string ingestion:

• vomiting or dry heaves
• anorexia or decreased appetite
• straining to defecate or diarrhea
• painful abdomen
• fever
• depression
• dehydration (from vomiting)

Kitties do love playing with string, and it can be a safe, fun and super cheap cat toy. Just remember that cats should not be allowed to play with string on their own. Being a responsible pet owner means never leaving string, yarn, ribbon, thread and similar items lying around the house, and if you have cat toys with string attached, be sure to put them away in-between supervised play. Your cat’s life may well depend on it.

Read more articles by Julia Williams

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