The Dangers of String

It's a hazard that can put your cat in a serious bind. Here's why.

Brooke Remy of Boston, Massachusetts, was delighted to watch her cat Puddles play with a long, pink ribbon she had just taken off a gift box. He twirled around and around and rolled over on the floor. Brooke tired before Puddles did, and left the room for about five minutes.


When she returned, the ribbon was gone – except for about two inches sticking out of Puddless mouth. He was coughing and drooling. Running over to him, Brooke began slowly pulling the ribbon out of his mouth, watching in terror and amazement as she removed eight inches of wet pink ribbon from his throat.

Puddles was lucky that Brooke had returned in time. If he had swallowed the ribbon without Brookes quick intervention, he could have suffered very serious, even life-threatening damage to his intestinal tract.

Why Cats Eat Strange Things
The tendency of some cats, dogs and even humans to consume odd, nonfood objects is a condition called pica. “Swallowing ribbon, string and other objects is not uncommon in cats,” says Joann Young, DVM, of The Cat Doctor in Dover, New Hampshire. “This is more likely to occur in younger cats, but Ive seen older cats that swallow such things.”

Besides eating ribbons and string, cats will go after any number of weird objects: yarn, fishing line, rubber bands, tinsel, Easter grass, needles and thread, window-blind pulls, feather cat toys, dental floss and even rubber tubing. String-like objects, when swallowed by a cat, are known as linear foreign bodies, according to Dr. Young.

No one really knows why cats eat unusual things. They may be bored or stressed or looking for attention. Some experts speculate that a cat deficient in a certain nutrient might be drawn to eat an object that might provide the nutrient. No one has proved any of these theories. “Its most likely that your cat is curious and, just like a toddler, likes to taste things,” says Dr. Young. “String and ribbons may just taste good.”

What happens to the body if a cat ingests string or other linear foreign bodies? “If long enough, the string may become tangled around the base of the tongue and the rest of the string may continue down the throat,” says Dr. Young. “Then peristalsis (the wavelike muscular contractions that aid in digestion) can cause the string, which becomes taut, to actually saw through the intestines.” This, of course, is a potentially life-threatening condition, often leading to intestinal leakage and peritonitis.

Sometimes you cant be sure that your cat has swallowed anything foreign. You may realize that the needle and thread you were working with are missing, or that your bathroom wastebasket – in which you throw away used dental floss – has been overturned.

The signs that may signal that your cat has swallowed a foreign body include: vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, a painful abdomen, lethargy, not eating, or hiding. “Basically, these are the signs of a sick cat that requires veterinary care,” says Dr. Young.

Treatment For Swallowed Objects
What should you do if you see that your cat has swallowed a string-like object? Says Dr. Young, “Try pulling it out. But only very slowly and gently. If it does not come out easily, do not yank on it. Call your veterinarian or an emergency clinic immediately.”

Dont worry; your cat will not choke or suffocate on the way,” continues Dr. Young. “The string is not blocking the airway.”

In another scenario, you may first realize that you cat has swallowed a string when you see part of it sticking out of its anus. Again, try pulling very slowly and gently on the string. If it comes out, then your cat is probably okay, but scheduling a veterinary examination as quickly as possible is prudent. If you can only get part of it out, “cut off the section that is visible, and then observe your cat. See if your cat passes the rest of the string in her feces. But if she shows any sign of illness, seek treatment immediately.”

Your veterinarian will first do a complete examination, including looking under the tongue to see if anything is wound around the base. If it is obvious that your cat has swallowed something, the veterinarian will try to remove it. Most likely, she will do an X-ray to locate the object or observe the intestinal gas pattern, which can indicate that an object has been swallowed.

Many cases do require surgery to remove the linear body. Sometimes the veterinarian has to cut away little sections of the intestine if the string has caused leakage. “Surgery is pretty successful – if we perform it early enough,” says Dr. Young.

Preventing Swallowing Accidents
Its a lot easier to keep your cat from swallowing an object than to remove one thats already gone down the hatch. Dr. Young offers these suggestions:

Cover wastebaskets in your bathroom and kitchen. Dr. Young treated one cat that ate an elastic ponytail holder along with a good length of dental floss.

Keep sewing, knitting and other craft items in a drawer or room that your cat cant explore.

Store fishing gear away securely. “One of the strangest objects I removed from a cats intestinal tract was a three-prong fishing hook that he bit off a fishing line,” says Dr. Young.

Dont use tinsel or string-like decorations on the Christmas tree.

Cover trash cans outside. “I once treated a cat that jumped into a dumpster after Thanksgiving, and retrieved and ate the twine used to truss a turkey,” says Dr. Young.

Supervise your cat when she plays with any string-like toys. Put them away when your cat is finished.

Watch any cat that has already had a swallowing accident. Many are repeat offenders.