Tracheal Foreign Body in a Cat

Coby Richter, DVM, DACVS, discusses removing a tracheal foreign body in a cat. Anesthetic protocol, endoscopic removal, and post-procedure care are covered.

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A five year old male neutered Domestic Shorthair cat presented on an emergency basis to DoveLewis for having difficulty breathing. He is an indoor-outdoor pet and the owners reported that he was outside (absent) the previous night. The owners noticed his abnormal breathing pattern when the cat returned in the morning and brought him directly to the hospital. He is an otherwise healthy cat, current on vaccinations with no significant medical history.

Upon presentation, the cat’s physical exam was notable for tachypnea (60 bpm) and tachycardia (180 bpm) with mildly increased bronchovesicular sounds in all fields with no crackles heard. He had a slight inspiratory wheeze and occasional open mouth breathing. The remainder of his physical exam was within normal limits. His initial treatments included inhaled albuterol (90mcg), butorphanol intramuscular (1.5 mg) and placement in the oxygen chamber at 40% oxygen.

A single lateral thoracic radiograph demonstrated a radiopaque structure within the trachea at the level of the 4th intercostal space with no evidence of pneumothorax or atelectasis. Extended data base was within normal limits except for a hyperglycemia (260 g/dl).

The owners gave permission to proceed to endoscopy. He was pre-oxygenated with flow-by oxygen and  given midazolam (0.2mg/kg IV) and fentanyl (5mcg/kg IV bolus) as premedication via a cephalic catheter. Propofol was used as an induction agent and administered as needed via 0.25ml boluses throughout the procedure to maintain full anesthesia (total 40 mg used). Bronchoscopy (flexible 6mm diameter bronchoscope with 2.2mm working channel and 120° field of view) revealed an irregular shaped rock in the trachea just rostral to the carina. The rock was successfully removed with two pronged grasping forceps and the trachea again inspected. There was mild inflammation (redness, edema) of the trachea for approximately 2 cm rostral to the carina. The cat was intubated following removal of the bronchoscope and maintained on 100% oxygen until recovery and extubation. After a procedural radiograph (lateral thorax), he was recovered in the oxygen cage and received acepromazine (0.02 mg/kg IV). The cat was weaned out of the oxygen cage over a 10 hour period and discharged from the hospital 16 hours after endoscopy. Go home medications included amoxicillin-clavulanate for 7 days (12.5 mg/kg PO BID) and buprenorphine (0.012 mg/kg PO q 8 hours) for 3 days. The owner reports that the cat recovered without incident.

Feline tracheal foreign bodies are an uncommon cause of respiratory distress at this hospital and are sporadically reported. Tracheal or bronchial foreign material can result in acute or chronic respiratory signs ranging from complete or near complete obstruction to chronic cough and respiratory inflammation and infection. Plant material and small rocks (gravel) are the most frequently cited foreign material in the veterinary literature, followed by portions of an endotracheal tube.  

Most radiodense foreign material is visible on plain radiographs of the chest of cats, however small pieces of plant material, even when of soft tissue opacity, can be difficult to discern with standard films. Computed tomography has been shown to be a good tool for identifying foreign material and associated pulmonary changes (infiltrates, atelectasis etc.), particularly if the foreign material has migrated into the smaller airways. Bronchoscopy is an excellent modality for identification and retrieval of foreign material within the trachea and mainstem bronchi, but has limited use for foreign bodies which have passed into the parenchyma , into the mediastinum or pleural space. Fluoroscopy has also proved useful in finding and assisting in retrieval of airway foreign bodies, particularly where bronchoscopy has failed.

Most large foreign bodies in cats tend to lodge just rostral to the carina and can be retrieved relatively easily with grasping forceps manipulated under direct visualization with a flexible endoscope. However, if the foreign object is too smooth to grasp or resists collection using a basket forceps, snare, suction or other endoscopic device, an over the wire balloon catheter can be passed beyond the obstruction, the balloon inflated, and the foreign body pulled rostrally for retrieval. The balloon catheter can either be placed using fluoroscopic or bronchoscopic guidance. Ideally, these cats are intubated and the flexible endoscope passed through the endotracheal tube by use of a Y or T adapter attached to the oral end of the tube to allow delivery of oxygen throughout the procedure. More commonly, the size of the cat’s trachea precludes passage of an endotracheal tube large enough to allow passage of a flexible scope that has an instrument channel sized for grasping forceps. As in this case, the patient can be intermittently intubated and extubated to allow for adequate ventilation and oxygenation while also allowing tracheoscopy and bronchoscopy. While the flexible endoscope is within the trachea, a small sterile flexible tube (e.g. red rubber catheter) can be passed through the larynx for supplemental oxygen. Planning for total intravenous anesthesia (TIVA) is essential as all staff involved in the procedure would otherwise be exposed to inhaled anesthetic gas.

Prognosis for cats following uncomplicated retrieval of tracheobronchial foreign bodies is good to excellent.  If the foreign body is suspected to be chronic with risk of associated pneumonia, a bronchoalveolar lavage or tracheal wash should be performed following foreign body retrieval to better diagnose and treat bacterial infection.

In the event a tracheal or bronchial foreign body cannot be retrieved with the techniques mentioned above, conversion to thoracotomy or thorocoscopy is required. Complications of tracheobronchial foreign body retrieval in a minimally invasive manner include hypoxia, tracheitis, hemorrhage, pneumothorax/pneumomediastinum and infection. Bronchospasm and coughing are common following any manipulation of the airway lumen. Pre-treatment with a bronchodilator such as terbutaline may be helpful, particularly in patients with a known inflammatory disease. Lidocaine (2% topical solution) can be sprayed at the level of the carina following removal of the foreign body to decrease stimulation and coughing post-procedure. Careful anesthetic technique combined with gentle and thorough endoscopic method carries low risk of serious complications. 

Selected References

  1. Goodnight ME, Scansen BA, Kidder AC et al. Use of a unique method for removal of a foreign body from the trachea of a cat. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2010;237(6):689-94.
  2. Johns S, Sellon R, Spencer E et al. Tracheal Foreign body and pneumonia in a Cat: A near missed diagnosis. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2014;50:273-277.
  3. McCarthy T. Veterinary Endoscopy for the Small Animal Practitioner 2005. Elsevier.
  4. Nutt LK, Webb JA, Prosser KJ et al. Management of dogs and cats with endotracheal tube tracheal foreign bodies. Can Vet J 2014;55:565-568.
  5. Tenwolde AC, Johnson LR, Hunt GB et al. The role of bronchoscopy in foreign body removal in dogs and cats: 37 cases (2000-2008). J Vet Intern Med 2010;24:1063-1068.
  6. Tivers MS and Moore AH. Tracheal foreign bodies in the cat and the use of fluoroscopy for removal: 12 cases. J Small Anim Pract. 2006;47(3):155-159.

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Lin-En Chen's picture

How would you manage the patient if endoscopy/thoracotomy wasn't readily available? Other than keeping them in O2 chamber, do you suggest mildly sedating them to minimise distress?


Lee Herold's picture

That is a great question. It is quite a dilemma that I know many of us find ourselves in…either not having the endoscopy equipment or availability of a surgeon for thoracotomy. Unfortunately for most tracheal foreign bodies one of those two procedures will be needed for resolution. But in the meantime you are absolutely correct that oxygen is very important. Light sedation with the goal of anxiolysis can sometimes be enough for the patient to make it until morning for transfer. I like butorphanol for this. You do want to be careful that you don’t sedate too heavily so that the patient is too sedate to control their own airway or too sedate to focus on their breathing. Unfortunately for a patient with complete airway obstruction sedation might not be enough at which point the only option you have is to anesthetize them to ensure they have adequate air flow and oxygenation. But be careful if you do have to intubate the patient to make sure they are also exhaling past the foreign body and not trapping air in their lungs. If you do not have scope equipment or a surgeon, another rescue option in a sedated patient is that you can try to tip them forward to use gravity to move the foreign body cranially toward the larynx where you might be able to visualize it for a grasp or use a Heimlich type maneuver to try to dislodge a tracheal foreign body cranially.