Curious kitty's flexible tastes not an uncommon feline trait

LOOK CLOSELY: An x-ray shows something extra in Lucy's abdomen. Picture: Dr Anne Quain
LOOK CLOSELY: An x-ray shows something extra in Lucy's abdomen. Picture: Dr Anne Quain

Lucy, a one-year-old cat, was brought in to see me late one Sunday afternoon with a history of vomiting.

Not once, not twice, but multiple times. Her owners reported that she was showing very little interest in food.

When I examined her, Lucy was bright, alert and to be honest, a bit feisty.

But when I carefully felt her abdomen, I thought I could feel something quite firm slipping through my fingers.

The feeling of that something corresponded to the location of her small intestine, just below her stomach.

There are many possible causes for this sort of "mass effect" in a cat - it could be an enlarged lymph node, or even a tumour.

But the sudden onset and Lucy's youth made me suspect another possibility.

"Does she eat hair elastics?" I asked the owner.

"Yes," came the reply.

Many animals who ingest foreign bodies have a history of this behaviour. Lucy's family had noticed her unusual interest in hair elastics.

It was more than a lucky guess - Lucy's interest is not unique among the feline population.

Young animals, particularly kittens, are inherently curious creatures.

Like toddlers, they have a tendency to ingest things that they shouldn't.

Hair accessories, including hair elastics, ties, clips, even scrunchies, are commonly swallowed by kittens and cats, and have the potential to cause serious illness.

Of course, there are many other items ingested by kittens and cats.

They include erasers, rubber mats, string, thread (sometimes with needle attached), bread bag ties, plastic toys, even coins.

Sure enough, x-rays revealed something that looked suspiciously like a hair tie in Lucy's small intestine.

The foreign body was causing a complete blockage of the intestine.

Young animals ... are inherently curious creatures.

Intestinal blockage is extremely painful, and if not treated can lead to damage to the intestinal wall and leakage of intestinal contents into the abdomen (peritonitis).

We gave Lucy pain relief. As she was severely dehydrated, due to all of the vomiting she had done, we put her on a drip to rehydrate her prior to surgery.

The next morning, my colleagues performed surgery and removed the offending hair tie.

The offending hair tie was surgically removed. Picture: Dr Anne Quain

The offending hair tie was surgically removed. Picture: Dr Anne Quain

Lucy recovered beautifully. She stopped vomiting and regained her interest in food.

Unfortunately, she does not associate eating the hair tie with the visit to the vet.

Her interest in hair ties continues.

This is not uncommon. Animals don't always understand what is bad for them, so we need to remove hazards from their environment.

The trouble is, we don't always know what counts as a hazard to an animal, until something goes wrong. Those of us who don't eat hair accessories may not anticipate that anyone else would contemplate eating them.

Lucy's story serves as a reminder that all household members should keep their hair accessories in a place where they cannot be reached by animals. A container with a screw-top lid is ideal.

If you see your kitten or cat ingest something they should not, contact your veterinarian immediately. In some cases, we can remove a foreign body before it causes intestinal blockage, by inducing vomiting.

Animals that vomit repeatedly should be assessed by a veterinarian, especially if they have a reduced appetite.

Lucy was lucky that her owners brought her to see us when they did.

Dr Anne Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.