The country song goes “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…” and the same thing applies to cats playing with string. Media is chock full of images of kittens playing with balls or yarn whether it be cartoons, advertisements, or the endless supply of cute videos on YouTube. But behind all this cuteness lies a deadly risk if a cat eats string, thread, yarn, or dental floss. These kitties can be fixed but it’s not easy. This is Mira’s story…
Sometimes you see your cat eat the string and sometimes you don’t. Often times the first thing you may notice is vomiting. This was the case with Mira. At just 2 years old, she’s still an intensely curious cat. All cats may vomit from time to time – hairballs, catching a mouse, chewing on plants, but never just vomiting out of spite. When Mira started vomiting multiple times over several hours, her family knew something wasn’t right and brought her in to see us at the Kingston Veterinary Clinic. The diagnosis was easily found as soon as Dr. Vander Wilp, a colleague of mine, saw the string wrapped over and under her tongue.
When a string gets trapped at this spot, the other end of it starts moving through the stomach and intestines. Essentially what happens is the string begins to act like a saw cutting through the intestines as it pleats them like an accordion. Palpating a cat’s abdomen like Mira’s you can feel the intestines bunched up and thickened. At this point, we weren’t sure how long the string had been present. What we were all sure of was that Mira needed help in the form of surgery.
Yet, surgery isn’t just a simple snap of the fingers. Many factors need to be considered. Due to her vomiting, Mira was dehydrated. With the risk of the string cutting into the intestines, blood and protein gets lost through these injuries which can complicate healing as well as leaking intestinal contents contributing to infection. And the biggest mystery, what will you do once you’re there actually seeing the abdominal contents. Mira’s family elected to go ahead and get her fixed up.
Once we had her on some IV fluids and got her a bit better stabilized, I took her into surgery and investigated the damage. In total, 7 perforations were noted and I discovered the other end of the string was in the colon. Effectively, it was acting like a drawstring on pair of sweatpants pulling on her intestines at both ends. Due to the number of perforations and their locations, the best option was to remove a large section of intestine and reattach the good ends. After releasing the ends of the string through separate incisions in the stomach and end of the small intestine, I removed 32cm of the small intestine and reattached the ends before rinsing her abdomen and closing her up to recover her.
Over the next couple of days, we monitored Mira in the hospital. Things weren’t going as we had hoped. She wasn’t eating, kept spiking fevers, and seemed generally quieter than expected. She only would eat tiny amounts when her family visited. On the third day post-op, we checked some blood as she still wasn’t doing as we expected and noted several changes in the blood cell count and protein levels that concerned us and raised the suspicion that something had broken down inside. The results were worse than before the initial surgery. Despite all the precautions and steps we had taken to help Mira, something was leaking.
After some discussion, her family elected to have us attempt a second surgery as a means of fully discovering the extent of the problems and to fix what we could. As soon as I got back into her abdomen, I had all the explanation we needed. Her anastomosis site (the reattached portion) had broken down and a small leak was seen near it. Given the amount of damage that was found and the previously removed section of intestine, I felt it best to call her family immediately and give them an update. Assessing the extent of everything internally, I let them know her prognosis was very guarded to poor even with attempting a second repair and advised them that euthanasia was not an unreasonable option. Her family conferred for a moment and told me to do my best to save her. Back in surgery, I removed as little intestine as possible that was no longer viable and reattached the new ends. After a very thorough rinsing of the abdomen and closing her back up, we all hoped for the best.
Great news the next morning! Her temperature was normal and she greeted us with alertness and purring unlike any other morning before. A recheck of her blood now showed dangerously low levels of red blood cells and protein. Mira needed a transfusion to give her the best chances for survival. Luckily, one of our staff members volunteered to have her cat donate. Mira received the much needed blood and was on the complete road to recovery. By the next day, she was feeling spunky, her blood values had improved, and she was eating everything we gave her. Mira was going home.
I like to think of Mira as a little “Mira-cle in May.” Not all cats get this outcome. It took the right combination of family commitment, veterinary team care, and a bit of luck. The important message here is that when your pet seems sick, it’s best to not wait to see if it will pass — at a minimum, please talk with your veterinarian. Waiting too long could make things worse.
Disclaimer: Blog posts may contain some opinions which are my own and may not reflect those of any current or former employers. Mira’s story is published with permission from her owners and some non-essential details have been omitted for brevity.