Hazard prevention at home can help pin down problems

SAFETY SEWN UP: Always ensure shared spaces are clear of dangerous items and materials.
SAFETY SEWN UP: Always ensure shared spaces are clear of dangerous items and materials.

Doctors in the US recently published a fascinating case of a 17-year-old boy presenting to emergency with a three-day history of chest pain.

Multiple tests failed to diagnose the cause of the mystery illness, until the teenager revealed he made his own clothes and often held sewing pins in his mouth.

Sure enough, x-rays and a CT-scan revealed a sewing pin lodged within the boy's heart. Somehow, he had swallowed a pin without noticing.

You may ask what this has to do with pets, given they don't engage in sewing.

The answer is that companion animals and their humans share the same environments, and as a result are exposed to similar hazards, and may suffer similar afflictions.

Over the years I've met a number of animals who accidentally ingested sewing pins or needles.

Pins and needles are extremely fine and are often dropped or misplaced. They can be very hard to see, especially on carpet.

One of my canine patients cohabited with an owner who was a passionate seamstress.

Her loyal dog Potato sat with her in the sewing room while she created fabulous garments. In the process she would drop the occasional pin or needle, but always did her best to retrieve these.

She brought Potato in to see me one day because he was extremely lethargic.

The night before she had had guests over for dinner. Potato had been given a chicken wing to chew on so that he didn't beg the guests for table scraps.

A few minutes after he disappeared with his chicken wing, he made a terrible noise, as if something was caught in his throat.

One of the guests attempted the Heimlich manoeuvre on the dog, without dislodging any object.

After that, Potato seemed to settle, but the following day, he whimpered just about every time he tried to move. Normally ravenous, he showed no interest in food or water.

When I examined Potato, he was very quiet and had an increased heart rate and respiratory rate which I felt were due to pain.

His throat seemed swollen, but there was nothing stuck in his mouth.

He was dehydrated due to lack of food and water, as well evaporative loss of fluid due to panting. I put Potato on a drip to rehydrate him but noticed that the swelling in his neck seemed to be slowly growing.

At the time, I didn't know of his owner's interest in sewing.

Due to Potato's deteriorating condition we anaesthetised him to take x-rays which revealed the presence of a fine metallic object in the very back of Potato's throat.

A colleague and I could make out the eye of a needle on the x-rays.

The point of the needle was sitting directly below and in contact with Potato's spine. Little wonder that he was sore!

With quite a lot of awkward but very careful manipulation we removed the needle, which had about 30cm of thread attached to it (metal shows up very well on x-rays, but thread does not).

Once he woke up from anaesthesia, Potato was a new dog. No more crying, a fully restored appetite and a wagging tail.

Potato's owner recognised the needle immediately and recalled that when she fed him the chicken wing the night before, Potato had picked it up and eaten it in the sewing room where the needle must have come into contact with it.

The moral of the story is that we can take steps to reduce hazards to both humans and animals living in shared environments.

The use of a pincushion to secure needles and pins in between use can help, as can the use of magnets to find dropped pins or needles in carpet.

And for pets who tend to drag their food out of the bowl, feeding them on a placemat or a tiled floor can reduce contamination of both pet food and carpet.

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