There can be little argument that dogs will eat some really strange things. I had a client who had taken off her $9000 heirloom wedding ring to wash her hands, and when she accidentally bumped it onto the floor with her elbow the dog swooped in and gobbled it down before she could get to it. As we were taking x-rays to confirm that the dog had indeed ingested the ring we discovered that not only was the ring in the dog’s stomach, but a pawn that had been missing from their chess set for a few weeks was in there keeping it company too.
Most of the time in situations like this surgery is not necessary. As surprising as the things that a dog will eat can be, it can be just as surprising what they can pass through their digestive tracts without any problem at all. Disposable razors, children’s toys of all types, underwear, and rocks all commonly glide all the way through the intestines uneventfully. Surgery is usually only considered if the non-food item gets stuck somewhere in the intestines and starts causing problems. When a dog refuses to eat, starts vomiting relentlessly, and stops passing stool those are our most common signals that we need to dive in to the abdomen and retrieve the offending object.
One exception to the wait and see approach is when the dog has been foraging in the spare change basket. Actually, a dog can eat all the quarters, nickels and dimes he wants and will be unlikely to suffer from anything more than your aggravation, but pennies have a specific composition that can cause life-threatening problems.
In 1982 the United States stopped making solid copper pennies and started making them from a wafer of zinc that was coated in a thin layer of copper. While that was surely a great cost saver for the government has turned out to be a potential health hazard for dogs, waterfowl in ponds where people toss coins, and children.
The stomach is designed to prevent solid objects from passing through its outflow tract, so when a penny is swallowed it tends to sit in the stomach for weeks or possibly even months. It doesn’t take long for the acid in the stomach to dissolve away the copper coating of the penny and expose the zinc core inside. Once the zinc is exposed the body starts absorbing it into the bloodstream. Large quantities of zinc damage red blood cells and cause them to disintegrate. Soon you have a dog who becomes very weak and lethargic from the anemia that results from having most of its red blood cells destroyed. Kidneys are also damaged by the chemicals released into the bloodstream when the red blood cells fall apart. I have seen as few as two pennies be fatal for a dog. Affected dogs are diagnosed with blood work and an x-ray, but they often very unstable and resolution cannot be achieved without removing the coins from the stomach.
If your veterinarian has an endoscope, a long flexible tube with a light and camera on the end of it, with an attachment that is suitable for snaring and removing foreign objects it can be sent down the esophagus to remove the coins without surgery. Sometimes this is easier said than done. In many cases surgically opening the stomach to remove the coins may be faster and more effective. If the dog survives the period of time surrounding the removal of the coins the then recovery will likely be complete.
Unfortunately dogs don’t always tell us when they have eaten something stupid, and in those cases we can only deal with problems when they appear. If you are lucky and happen to catch the dog in the act of eating your change, however, you just may have the chance to prevent a serious problem before it starts by getting the pennies removed before the dog gets sick.