Stephen J. Birchard DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Here Is What Happens When You Leave a Surgical Sponge in the Abdomen

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Case Report

Penny is a 5-year-old female spayed mixed breed dog that presented with a chronic draining tract on her left flank. (Fig. 1-2) The track had been present for 1 year and had been operated 3 times with no resolution. Each time the exploratory surgery was performed directly over the affected area of the flank attempting to follow the tract to its source. No foreign body or other etiology was found on any of the previous surgeries. Repeated antibiotic therapy would temporarily stop the drainage; cessation of the antibiotic would result in recurrence of the drainage. Other than the tract no significant abnormalities were found on physical examination.

Plain film abdominal radiographs were unremarkable. A positive contrast fistulogram was performed by inserting a Foley catheter into the tract and injecting water-soluble radiographic contrast material.(Fig. 3) Although a foreign body was not outlined it appeared that the contrast entered the abdominal cavity.
Fig. 3

Because of the suspicion of an intra-abdominal foreign body, a ventral midline laparotomy was performed. A large, adherent, firm granuloma was present in the left dorsal caudal abdomen adjacent to the urinary bladder and descending colon and adhered to the left ureter. (Fig. 4) 
Fig. 4: Granuloma in caudal abdomen (arrow)
After tedious blunt and sharp dissection that extended deep into the epaxial muscles, the granuloma was excised. Inside the granuloma was a surgical sponge. (Fig. 5)
Fig. 5: Surgical sponge found in the center of the granuloma.
Penny had an unremarkable recovery from anesthesia and surgery. The tract resolved and did not recur.

The only abdominal surgery Penny had was when she was spayed as a puppy. The sponge was present in her for 5 years.

In the next blog we’ll talk about how to prevent this from happening.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dehiscence of the Intestinal Incision: Why does it happen and how can we prevent it?

Dehiscence of an enterotomy of the jejunum in a dog
You have just completed an intestinal anastomosis. The bowel looks healthy, there was minimal contamination, and the remainder of the abdomen looks good. The omentum has been tucked into place around the bowel and you close the abdominal incision.

Now begins the period of postoperative anxiety (for you, not the patient). For the next 3 days every time the dog vomits, spikes a fever, doesn’t eat, or seems painful in the abdomen, your “worry-meter” will go off the charts.  You will ask yourself many questions: did you remove all of the diseased bowel, are your sutures holding, was there another perforation or foreign body that you missed, or is the animal just not healing properly? The source of the anxiety of course is that postoperative intestinal leakage is a devastating complication. One study found a dehiscence incidence of 16% of enterotomies and anastomoses in dogs, with a mortality rate of 74%.1 Dogs with foreign bodies and trauma appeared to be at higher risk for dehiscence in this study. Clinical evidence of peritonitis appeared at about 3 days postoperatively.

Intestinal wound breakdown can also occur after full thickness biopsy.  Eight of 66 dogs died or were euthanized due to dehiscence of intestinal biopsy sites in a British clinical study.2 No specific factors predisposing dogs to biopsy dehiscence were identified in the study.


Why do intestinal incisions sometimes breakdown and can we do anything to prevent it? In a study of dogs having intestinal surgery, high risk for dehiscence was found if a dog had 2 of the 3 following clinical factors: pre-existing peritonitis, foreign body, or a serum albumin of less than 2.5g/dl.3 This is valuable information and serves to heighten the surgeon’s awareness of postoperative septic peritonitis in selected dogs or cats that fit these criteria. Monitoring of pre- and postoperative serum albumin levels after gastrointestinal surgery, in addition to routine patient parameters (temperature, abdominal pain, vomiting, etc.), appears warranted.

In addition to these well-documented dehiscence factors, clinical experience tells us that dogs with metastatic intestinal neoplasia are also at higher risk for incisional breakdown. Dogs with abdominal carcinomatosis seem particularly prone to poor healing of their incisions.


Prevention of peritonitis secondary to intraoperative contamination is by following good surgical technique: packing off the intestine with abdominal sponges, keeping tissues moist, atraumatic technique, use proper suture materials and patterns, and short surgical time. Abdominal lavage is not indicated in dogs that do not have generalized peritonitis. Local lavage of the affected intestinal segment is fine but do not allow fluid to enter the peritoneal cavity. Abdominal lavage fluid has been found to potentiate peritonitis by distributing bacteria and inhibiting phagocytosis by macophages and neutrophils. Abdominal lavage however is indicated in animals with existing peritonitis.

Prophylactic antibiotics, i.e. those given prior to and during surgery but not postoperatively, are also recommended for gastrointestinal surgery in dogs and cats. However, unless the animal already has septic peritonitis, antibiotics are not continued after surgery because continued administration has no benefit and may actually be detrimental. Unnecessary antibiotic administration leads to development of resistant bacterial species and may mask the early signs of peritonitis making it more difficult to diagnose.
Closed suction drain (Jackson-Pratt) used for abdominal drainage in peritonitis
Clinical signs of postoperative septic peritonitis are: abdominal pain, vomiting, anorexia, fever, neutrophila and left shift on complete blood count, and peritoneal fluid that contains bacteria. Treatment is re-operation, resection of the involved intestinal segment (do not try to just re-suture it), abdominal lavage with copious amounts of sterile saline, and placement of a closed suction drain (e.g. Jackson Pratt). Postoperative care includes fluids and colloids, antibiotics, nutritional support, and careful monitoring.


1. Allen DA, Smeak DD, Schertel ER. Prevalence of small intestinal dehiscence and associated clinical factors: a retrospective study of 121 dogs. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 1992;28:70-76.
2. C J Shales, J Warren, D M Anderson, S J Baines, R A S White. Complications following full-thickness small intestinal biopsy in 66 dogs: a retrospective study. Journal of Small Animal Practice 08/2005; 46(7):317-21.
 3. Ralphs SC, Jessen CR, Lipowitz AJ. Risk factors for leakage following intestinal anastomosis in dogs and cats: 115 cases (1991-2000). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2003;223:73-77

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Case Outcome: German Shepherd With Chronic Diarrhea (Did you get it right?)

Fig. 1: note intraluminal soft tissue mass in the colon in the lateral abdominal radiograph
Fig. 2: Note filling defect in the colon in the barium study


Cecal inversion (or cecal intussusception). The cecum is "inside out" and what you see on the surgical photo is the cecal mucosa.


Typhlectomy (removal of the cecum) 

After exposing the cecum via a colotomy it was excised at its base and the colotomy closed routinely in one layer. (simple continuous, 4-0 PDS) Michael did well and made a full recovery.


Cecal inversion, or ceco-colic intussusception, is a rare disorder that is characterized by hematochezia and occasionally, diarrhea. It is more common in young dogs. A palpable abdominal mass is present and the primary differential diagnoses are foreign body, ileo-ceco-colic intussusception, and neoplasia. Typhlitis, such as that associated with whipworm infestation, may predispose to the condition. Definitive diagnosis is by plain film and contrast radiographs, or abdominal ultrasound

Fig. 3: Pneumocologram in a dog with cecal inversion. Note intraluminal soft
tissue mass.(arrows)  (from: Leah A. Cohn, DVM, PhD, DACVIM; Jimmy C. Lattimer, DVM, MS, DACVR; and Laura D. Dvorak, DVM. What’s your diagnosis? JAVMA, Vol 220, No. 2, pg 169, January 15, 2002.)
Pneumocologram (Fig. 3) or colonoscopy can also be used to confirm the diagnosis. Treatment is surgical removal of the cecum. Removal of the cecum, also called typhlectomy, can be done by first performing a colotomy to exteriorize the cecum, then removing the cecum at its base. Closure of the resultant colonic incision is routine. Alternatively, resection of the ileo-ceco-colic junction can be performed. However, removal of only the cecum, preserving the ileo-ceco-colic valve, is preferable. Attempts to un-invert the cecum are fruitless because of the severe inflammation and edema of the tissue. Be sure to treat associated parasitic infestations.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What's Your Diagnosis?: 1.5 yr old German Shepherd with chronic diarrhea (An Unusual Diagnosis!)


History and Physical Examination:

Michael is a 1 1/2 year old male castrated German Shepherd presented with a history of bloody diarrhea for 2 weeks. Frank blood has been noted in the stool. On physical examination, a mid-abdominal, movable tubular mass was palpated. Pain was elicited on palpation.  Fecal examination revealed whipworms.


Review the plain film lateral abdominal radiograph and upper gastrointestinal barium series (Fig 1-2). (The ventro-dorsal projections were not contributory.)
Fig. 1
Fig. 2

A ventral midline exploratory laparotomy was performed, and the ileo-ceco-colic region was exposed. (Fig. 3: Ileum to the right, colon to the left) 
Fig. 3
A colotomy was performed on the antimesenteric aspect of the proximal colon and a structure was extruded from the colonic lumen. (Fig. 4)
Fig. 4
What abnormalities are seen on the radiographs? (Fig 1-2)

What is the structure that came out of the colon? (Fig. 4)

What is the diagnosis?

What is the treatment and prognosis?

Answers coming soon!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Are Some Doctors Born To Be Surgeons, Or Can It Be Learned?

I was a 2nd year veterinary student and it was my turn to be the primary surgeon in our surgical lab course. The procedure to be performed was a splenectomy and it was on a live dog. (Many years ago shelter or purpose-bred dogs were used for a variety of surgical procedures in teaching labs like this. Today surgical laboratories in many veterinary schools do spay and neuters on shelter dogs that are then adopted.)

I was nervous about this lab for days in advance. I was a surgery “virgin”; it was my first time as the primary. I was afraid that I would make a mistake that would hurt the dog and ruin my confidence. I knew these labs were a “rite of passage” for vet students in their journey to becoming a doctor, and I didn’t want to fail. My quest to be a vet began when I was 10 years old; I didn’t want it to end prematurely because I couldn’t successfully do surgery.

The surgery began fine but quickly deteriorated. I made the initial incision and opened the abdominal cavity, but I was afraid to pull the spleen out. I thought if I was too rough it would rupture and the dog would bleed to death. (Splenic rupture can lead to life threatening hemorrhage so there was some logic to my hysteria.) After about an hour, which felt more like an entire day, I finally got the spleen exteriorized. It was enormous. The anesthetic drugs had caused severe splenomegaly, and to me it looked like a gigantic purple throbbing alien that was ready to explode and create an epic disaster.

I had to identify the splenic blood vessels and get them ligated so I could remove the scary organ before it ruined my life. For those who have never done a splenectomy, there are about 16,000 little blood vessels that have to be tied off. I thought I had to dissect and ligate every tiny vessel individually so that’s what I started doing. The minutes and hours ticked away. After a while the student doing anesthesia (who probably still hates me to this day) rudely announced that the dog was going into shock; pale mucous membranes and rapid heart rate. Not what I wanted to hear and now my worst nightmare was beginning to take shape. He wanted to know what the hell was I doing and why was there blood all over the floor. I looked down and there was an accumulation of blood that was definitely the size of Lake Erie.

Unknown to me when I manually pulled the spleen out of the abdomen I had created a small fracture of the organ at its end (or tail) and it had been bleeding down the surgical drape and onto the floor for quite some time. Trying to maintain my composure, I called my faculty lab supervisor over for advice. Embarrassment and shame were making inroads into my consciousness. Ditch digging was starting to look like a very attractive career choice. Dr. Roger Brown, one of the older, wiser, and calmer surgeons at the vet school, was running the lab.  In a soft and reassuring voice he told me to get the damn vessels ligated and take the spleen out so the dog will not bleed to death.

Somehow I willed my shaky, tentative hands to perform. I got the vessels tied off and removed the spleen. I closed the incision and the dog made an uneventful recovery from anesthesia. I stayed with him most of the night and prayed to the god of surgery that he would make it. Miraculously, the dog survived.  Ditch digging would have to wait till another day.

After this brush with surgical disaster I was convinced that surgery was not going to be my game. Obviously that changed over time. After 35 years of teaching surgery to students, interns, and residents, I am convinced that some people have a natural ability and demeanor to be surgeons.  But that doesn’t mean that the other 99% of the world has no hope of ever being a competent surgeon. The American College of Surgeons Division of Education Website states: “Surgeons are trained, not born.”( If you have the desire and are willing to study, learn from others, practice your skills, have a positive attitude and resilient personality, and love to do positive and definitive treatments for your patients, you can be a good surgeon.

But, here’s my other advice: if you don’t like surgery and don’t want to do it . . . its OK! Let someone else do it, and don’t feel bad about it! An oncologist once told me that he only does minor surgeries; he refuses to do anything that requires taking the scalpel blade out of its foil package. Do the things you love to do, and feel good about yourself. The veterinary profession is a community. We help each other and we compliment each other’s interests and skills. The end result is high quality patient care delivered to our 4-legged family members. I am very glad to be a part of it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Idiopathic Megacolon in Cats: Let's Get This Pooping Started!

Fig. 1: Excised colon from a cat with megacolon
Idiopathic megacolon in cats is a chronic functional disorder of the large intestine that causes obstipation.1,2 The etiology is poorly understood but it is thought to be due to a neuromuscular problem in the colon that impairs motility. Histopathology of excised colons from affected cats usually does not show significant lesions.1 Fecal retention in the colon can be severe causing extreme enlargement of the large intestine and rectum and clinical deterioration of the affected cat. (Fig. 1)

Clinical Signs and Diagnosis

Clinical signs of megacolon are constipation, anorexia, chronic malaise and weight loss. Physical examination findings may include: poor body condition, dehydration, and a variably enlarged colon filled with hard feces.  The diagnosis is confirmed with abdominal radiographs. (Fig. 2-3)
Fig. 2: Lateral radiograph of a cat with megacolon

Fig. 3: Ventrodorsal radiograph of same cat as  in Fig. 2


Initial medical therapy of megacolon is with pro-motility drugs such as Cisapride combined with stool softeners (e.g. lactulose). Repeated enemas and manual de-obstipation is usually necessary to evacuate the colon and rectum. Although medical therapy can be effective at first, surgical intervention is frequently necessary for long-term relief of clinical signs and return of normal defecation.

Subtotal colectomy is the recommended surgical procedure for megacolon. The majority of the colon is removed, from the ileum or proximal colon to the distal colon. (Fig. 4)
Fig. 4: Intraoperative appearance of megacolon in a cat. Ileum is to the left, rectum to the right.
Preservation of the ileal-colic junction results is less postoperative diarrhea in cats.3 Since the ileum is tethered to the abdominal cavity by its mesentery it has limited mobility and the surgeon must avoid suturing the anastomosis under tension. Leaving 2-4 cm of distal colon may be necessary to achieve a tension-free closure.  However, leaving too much distal colon can result in recurrence of obstipation.

Subtotal colectomy in a cat is a more challenging surgical procedure than small intestinal resection and anastomosis. The blood supply is oriented differently and the colon contains a higher concentration of bacteria making contamination and anastomotic leakage even more devastating. Surgeons with proper training and experience are best suited to perform this operation.

Preoperative Considerations

Most surgeons prefer not to give enemas to megacolon cats before colectomy even if the colon is severely impacted with feces. Retained enema fluid in the colon will increase the chance of leakage and contamination during surgery. Administer prophylactic antibiotics preoperatively, such as a third generation cephalosporin or unasyn.

Surgical Technique

Perform a ventral midline abdominal approach and do a thorough exploratory of all structures. Isolate the large intestine from the rest of the abdominal cavity with moistened abdominal sponges. Ligate the colonic blood vessels. Although not recommended by all surgeons, I prefer to preserve the cranial rectal artery and vein to ensure good blood supply to the distal aspect of the anastomosis. To do this, it is necessary to individually ligate the multiple small vessels entering the bowel from perpendicular to its long axis.

It may be necessary to manually move the hard fecal material from the rectum to the descending colon or vice verse to provide space to make the distal incision. Pick up the ileum and move it caudally to determine how much distal colon should be retained to assure a tension free anastomosis. Place clamps on the bowel to be removed and assistant’s fingers adjacent to them to prevent leakage. I also place 2 or more stay sutures on the rectum to prevent retraction into the pelvic canal after resection of the colon. Perform anastomosis as described in the previous blog, i.e., simple continuous using 2 suture lines, 4-0 PDS with the RB 1 taper needle. (Fig. 5) Wrap the anastomosis with omentum and close the abdominal incision routinely.
Fig. 5: Completed ileal-colic anastomosis after subtotal colectomy

Postoperative Care

Maintain intravenous fluids until the cat is eating and drinking on its own. Antibiotics are not continued postoperatively since there is no benefit to prolonged administration when using them as a prophylactic measure. Keep the cats on their usual diet assuming it is a good quality maintenance food. Ample fresh water should be available at all times.

After subtotal colectomy, many cats will have a variable period of soft stool or diarrhea but eventually the majority of operated cats will return to formed stool. As previously mentioned, if the ileo-colic junction is preserved diarrhea is less common as a postoperative problem.

Recurrence of obstipation is a rare but possible long-term complication. Excision of additional colon may be necessary if it is found to be enlarged and retaining feces. The majority of cats have a good prognosis after subtotal colectomy with return to normal or near normal enteric function.4


1. Rosin E, Walshaw R, Mehlhaff C, Matthiesen D, Orsher R, Kusba J Subtotal colectomy for treatment of chronic constipation associated with idiopathic megacolon in cats: 38 cases (1979-1985). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1988 Oct 1;193(7):850-3.
2. Bright RM, Burrows CF, Goring R, Fox S, Tilmant L Subtotal colectomy for treatment of acquired megacolon in the dog and cat. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1986 Jun 15;188(12):1412-6.
3. D. C. Sweet, E. M. Hardie, E. A. Stone Preservation versus excision of the ileocolic junction during colectomy for megacolon: A study of 22 cats. Journal of Small Animal Practice Volume 35, Issue 7, pages 358–363, July 1994
4. Gregory CR, Guilford WG, Berry CR, Olsen J, Pederson NC Enteric function in cats after subtotal colectomy for treatment of megacolon.Vet Surg. 1990 May-Jun;19(3):216-20.