Keeping cats safe – foreign bodies

Your cat ate what...?!!


For this month’s topic in our Keeping Cats Safe campaign we are moving away from poisoning and touching on a cause of accidental injury. ‘Foreign bodies’ – so called by the veterinary and medical professions – are objects originating from outside the body ie, things you would not expect your cat to eat or swallow. We often think that only dogs eat anything and everything and cats are more selective, however, when International Cat Care recently carried out a small survey of vets many of them had treated cats which had eaten something they should not have, and required treatment to remove it! In this article we have a look at some of the things most commonly reported by vets so you know what to hide away from curious felines!

Which cats are most likely to eat something they shouldn’t?

With age seems to come wisdom in regard to eating strange things, and vets told us that young cats were more likely to ingest foreign bodies, perhaps because they are curious or are playing with them. In addition there seemed to be more pedigree cats in the survey, although moggies were not exempt from eating silly things! Burmese were mentioned more often than they should have been, suggesting that they may be more likely to nibble non-food items. We know that some pedigree cats (such as Siamese) are more likely to suffer from pica (the consumption of non-edible materials) showing behaviours such as wool-eating and they may need help from a veterinary behaviourist. Cats kept solely indoors may be more likely to eat things they shouldn’t and owners of indoor cats must make a big effort to keep their cats entertained to avoid boredom- or frustration-related chewing.

How do I know if my cat has swallowed something it shouldn’t?

If you have concerns because you are missing a needle and thread or a small children’s toy which you have seen the cat playing with or chewing, then consult your vet. Do not assume that things will ‘pass through’ safely, as they often don’t, becoming lodged and causing severe illness. Signs that the object may be causing a problem include:

  • refusing food
  • lethargy
  • retching and vomiting.

Cats are masters of hiding illness so they may just seem to sleep more and be less keen to play rather than crying or showing other signs of pain or discomfort. If your cat shows seems withdrawn or quiet or is behaving in a strange way,  then speak to your vet. Early treatment is by far better than leaving things until a cat is really unwell.

Common things eaten or swallowed by cats

So what do vets report as the most common things found where they shouldn’t be? Box 1 lists the most common, and more unusual items reported by the vets who took part in our survey.


Things to dispose of immediately or keep safely shut away to avoid your cat swallowing it:

  • Needles and threads
  • String or wool
  • String from around a joint of meat
  • Hairbands
  • Rubber bands
  • Bones
  • Tinsel/Easter grass
  • Coins
  • Balloons
  • Earplugs
  • Fruit stones and nut shells

Needles and thread

String and string-like items (called linear foreign bodies) seem to cause  the most common problems. If they are swallowed they can cause the intestines to bunch up and make the cat very unwell, usually requiring surgery to remove them. Sewing needles and thread certainly featured highly in our survey. The needle may be swallowed with the thread (figure 1a) or get stuck in the mouth (figures 1b,c,d). Some thread may even become wound around the base of the tongue while the rest travels down into the stomach.


String, rubber bands and fibres

Hair bands and rubber bands were mentioned frequently, along with the string found around meat when it is cooked - such as a joint of lamb. Fibres and stuffing from inside cat toys, carpet fibres, ribbon, dental floss and blind cords were also mentioned. One cat required surgery to remove a blockage of bunched up hair from its owner’s wig. Other things included Christmas tinsel and ‘Easter grass’ (made from shredded paper or cellophane which is used to make colourful ‘nests’ for small Easter eggs). Figure 2a shows an X-ray from a cat which had eaten so much fibre and hair it had blocked its stomach completely.


Small objects

Small round objects seemed irresistible to some cats, but unfortunately they are the perfect size to block the intestines and then require surgery to remove them. Coins (figure 3a,b,c) were not uncommon findings in our survey, together with buttons, earplugs, fruit stones, nut shells, bottle tops and almonds. One cat managed to swallow a pin badge which lodged in its intestine making him rather unwell (figure 4 a,b,c). However, he recovered well once it was removed surgically. 


The unusual foreign body

Most vets will have a story to tell about the most unusual object they have removed from a cat. Our vets gave us an impressive list including balloons, children’s toys (including a beheaded plastic lizard, (figure 5) other plastic toys, (figure 6), the amazing X-ray from a cat which had eaten a small, spiky rubber toy (figure 7a and b), Christmas decorations and even a SIM card. Bones can also cause a problem to bin-raiding cats (figure 8) as cooked chicken bones in particular can be very sharp and lodge in the intestinal system, causing severe illness.


What treatment is needed for a cat which has swallowed something it shouldn’t have?

Generally cats are treated either conservatively (given treatment while waiting to see if the object works its way through the system), surgically (involving an operation to remove the offending item) or the item is removed using an endoscope (a tube passed into the cat’s stomach and intestines with a type of ‘grabber ‘and a camera to locate and remove the item). Some small objects may pass through the cat’s system in 24 hours or so, but cats must be monitored closely for any signs of deterioration and possibly hospitalised at the veterinary clinic during this time. The majority of cats will require an operation if the object is making them unwell. So called linear foreign bodies, such as string, cotton and  rubber bands can cause additional problems as the intestine can ‘bunch up’ around the object.  This may cause damage to the intestine and can  result in the serious and life threatening condition called peritonitis. As with all illnesses, the quicker a cat is taken to the vet, the better the chances of successful treatment.  Any cat seen to eat or swallow a foreign body should be seen at the clinic as soon as possible so the vet can make a plan of how to treat it.


Cats can be just as silly as dogs when it comes to eating things they shouldn’t – owners of kittens and of some pedigree cats should be especially aware of the dangers. As cat owners it is important to be aware of the items that can cause a problem to our cats and make sure we put them out of reach. Box 2 lists some tips to remember to help avoid your cat swallowing something it shouldn’t.


Tips to avoid your cat eating something it shouldn’t

  • Keep wool, sewing cotton and other sewing materials out of reach.  If you drop a needle, search until you find it!
  • Ensure that cat toys are strong enough to withstand rough play and dispose of any with weak seams or leaking contents
  • Make sure your bin is covered to avoid cats foraging for bones or the string around meat for example.
  • Encourage children to put away their toys after use.
  • During times of celebration keep cats shut away from Christmas trees and Easter grass.
  • Make sure your cats (particularly indoor cats) have plenty of stimulation and well-made toys to play with.
  • If you see your cat playing with anything that is not a toy remove it before it is ingested and causes a problem!


Owner case studies

Owners also told us what their had been eating that they shouldn’t have:

Case 1: Beau

Beau was always a bit of a ‘chewer’, nibbling on things he shouldn’t! Beau’s owner Clare told us, ‘My cat Beau used to nibble on anything made of plastic film - files in my office and so forth. I'd not worried about it, thinking he wouldn't actually eat plastic, but he did. I found him one day straining on his litter box and screaming, and it looked as if his bowel was prolapsing from his bottom. When I rushed him to the veterinary hospital, it turned out he had eaten an entire lightweight plastic bag, and it was on its way out. Thanks to the vet, he survived this, but he had a very lucky escape - if it had bunched up inside him, it would have killed him. From then onwards I have ensured that no plastic is ever anywhere he can get at it. I now realise that cats will eat stupid things.’

Case 2: Gilligan

Gilligan’s case is one of mistaken identity – he thought anything that smells like chicken, is chicken, including the foil the chicken is wrapped in. His owner Fai tells us what happened. ‘ While moving house recently we cooked our meals in aluminium foil - which we put in the waste basket when finished. One morning we found Gilligan acting as if he was in pain. A visit to the vet led to X-rays which showed many pieces of aluminium foil in his intestines and stomach. He had  obviously eating the foil because it smelled and tasted like chicken. He went through some painful days and nasty tasting medicine before he was himself again. He never did learn to stay out of the waste basket, but we learned to clear up and never leave foil used to bake or grill meat where he could get it’

Case 3: Leo

Leo was a 7-month-old moggie who was into anything and everything. One of the things he like to play with was sewing cotton and he was seen playing with and swallowing some. His owners hoped it would pass through as it was only a short piece and he initially seemed unaffected. After only a few hours he started to vomit and, although he ate his breakfast the next morning, he was quiet and not himself. He was taken to the  veterinary clinic where his vet found one end of the cotton thread had got caught around the base of his tongue (figure 9a) and the rest had passed down into his stomach and intestine. An X-ray showed that his intestines were already bunching up and causing him pain and illness. Leo was admitted to the clinic and underwent surgery to remove a rather long piece of cotton (figure 9b)! He recovered very well and was discharged the next day (figure 9c). His owner (figure 9d) now shuts her sewing equipment away at all times!
(Case and images courtesy of Orla Fitzpatrick)


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