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Ask a Vet: What Should I Do if My Cat Eats String?

The image of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn is engrained in the collective psyche. Unfortunately yarn (and string, dental floss, fishing line, etc.) can have life-threatening consequences.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Apr 12th 2012

A while back I wrote a post on Dogster about an unfortunate incident involving my canine pal Buster, some blades of grass, and a dangler (or, as I called it, a dingleberry). I described in detail the trials and tribulations of trying to extract grass blades from the anus of a prancing dog. A comment on the post caught my eye. Cherry writes:

I had a similar problem except it was with my cat and a string she had eaten. It was dangling out of her butt and I had to pull it out. LOL!

It sounds like things worked out well for Cherry’s cat, and I’m very happy about that. However, there is a big difference between a few blades of grass that were known to be only a few inches long, and a string that could be any length at all.

The image of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn is engrained in the collective psyche. I don’t know that Normal Rockwell ever painted it, but it would surprise me if he hadn’t.

Unfortunately, it turns out that yarn is very dangerous for cats. So is string. And dental floss, fishing line, Christmas tinsel, Easter grass, ribbon, and any similar long, thread-like item. These items, when ingested by cats or kittens, have the potential to lead to a life-threatening condition called gastrointestinal obstruction due to linear foreign body. The condition is every bit as scary as its name implies.

Linear (thread-like) items wreak havoc when one end of the item becomes snagged or anchored somewhere in the body. A common place for this to happen is under the tongue — the linear item can become wrapped, and thus anchored, around the base of the tongue and then swallowed. However, the tongue is not the only place where linear items can snag. If any portion of a linear item becomes anchored anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract, problems can occur. The intestines will try to work the linear item through and towards the anus. But if the item is anchored, it can’t be moved. Instead, the intestines move themselves, and natural intestinal motility causes the intestines to become bunched up. This bunching leads may lead to life-threatening blockage of the intestines that requires surgery or endoscopy to correct.

As the intestines bunch, pressure placed on them by the foreign body or by the bunching itself may cause perforations in the intestinal walls. Thin, strong foreign bodies also have the potential to directly lacerate the intestines. Intestinal contents (including loads of bacteria) can then leak through the perforations and lacerations, leading to sepsis and death.

Because of this risk, feline access to thread, yarn, string, and other linear items should be absolutely denied. However, it is not a foregone conclusion that a cat will get into trouble every time it eats string. If the item makes it through the intestines without anchoring, it may pass into the stool. That is where Cherry’s situation becomes relevant to this discussion.

Sometimes a small portion of a very long piece of thread or string will protrude from a cat’s anus. In such cases, pulling on the string can have catastrophic consequences. If the string is long enough, traction on it can cause lacerations or serious damage to the walls of any portion of the gastrointestinal tract with which it is in contact.

Therefore, if you find your cat with a dangling string, my recommendation is to very carefully cut the string near the anus. Monitor the cat carefully until the entire thing comes out. If any unusual symptoms occur — especially vomiting, loss of appetite, or lethargy — or if you have any doubts about the situation, seek immediate veterinary attention.

It’s generally safe to gently extract a linear item from the anus if (as in the case of Buster’s grass blades) you know it is short, and you know how to do it properly. But if you have any doubts, don’t pull. Cut instead.

Shutterstock images: Kitten with yarn ball, kitten chewing yarn