Gastrointestinal foreign body (GIFB) refers to any ingested item other than food or liquid that results in partial or complete blockage of the gastrointestinal track; this is also commonly known as a gastrointestinal impaction. Gastrointestinal overload (GIO) refers a stomach that distends beyond its peak capacity (think Thanksgiving); this may result from eating too large a volume of food or from food decomposing in the stomach.
GIFB are usually caused by an amphibian, such as a frog, toad, newt, and salamander, eating something that’s in the enclosure or on their food items. Many amphibians will eat things such as small pieces of gravel, long-thread sphagnum moss or sheet moss, bark, or other material.
GIO commonly happens when large food items are given to the amphibian to eat or too much food is given at one time. Eating items that are longer than the space between an amphibian’s eyes, or that weigh more than 5 percent of the amphibian’s body weight, can lead to GIO. This scenario often happens when different size amphibians are kept together and the larger one eats the smaller one – yikes! Another common cause is keeping the temperature so cool that it interferes with digestion and absorption, leading to a lot of food staying in the stomach for too long.
Eating indigestible material or too much food at once both cause the stomach to distend excessively. A distended stomach causes difficulty breathing, which leads to reduced oxygen, changes in the blood (such as too much carbon dioxide), and poor heart function. If the GIFB lodges in the intestines, the distended small or large intestine can rupture. A rupture, which is like a tiny explosion, will lead to significant sickness or even death. In cases of GIO, decomposition of the undigested food in the stomach causes an increase in bacteria and toxins that may leak out of the stomach and cause illness.
Physical signs that your amphibian may have GIFB or GIO include:
A stomach that is distended, with or without recent defecation; the amphibian looks like it gained twice its weight overnight. The time between feeding and onset of signs is generally between one and 24 hours.
- Gagging, retching, or open-mouth breathing may be seen.
- Occasionally, a foreign body may appear, protruding from the rectum or that can be seen in the mouth.
- Loss of body condition may be apparent; it may have a fat stomach but is boney everywhere else.
- The stomach may feel tense, like an overblown balloon.
- You may feel a rock or hard object in the stomach.
- A decrease in fecal output may be an early sign of disease.
Horned frogs (Ceratophrys spp.), African bullfrogs (Pyxicephalus) and African clawed frogs (Xenopus spp.) are most often seen with both GIFB and GIO because they are large enough to swallow small rodents, and owners often like to watch them eat such meals when fed live. However, large crickets can cause a similar problem for small amphibians and any species can have both GIFB and GIO.
Your veterinarian will take a detailed diet and husbandry history and perform a physical exam. In many cases the exam and careful questioning will reveal that too much food was given at once or that indigestible material is in the enclosure. However, because other diseases can look like GIFB or GIO, your veterinarian may want to do some additional testing. A fecal exam can check for parasites. X-rays look for gravel or other objects the amphibian ate. A contrast study may be helpful: a liquid that shows up on x-rays is put into the stomach where it can outline the foreign body or food. Ultrasound can also look for the cause of the distention.
Once a diagnosis of GIFB or GIO is made, your veterinarian will outline the treatment goals. These goals are to reduce the distention, which will help the amphibian breath and help make the heart function better; remove the foreign body or large food items; and treat possible infections with antibiotics.
To help the amphibian breath better, a tube may be placed in the mouth down into the stomach to remove the gas distention. A foreign body or other stomach contents may be removed through the mouth by flushing it out with saline, or by using an endoscope or tweezers to remove the objects. Sedation or anesthesia may be required to perform these procedures. If these treatments don’t work, the objects can be removed in surgery.
Because of the toxins and bacteria that build up with these diseases, your veterinarian will often prescribe antibiotic medication for two to four weeks. If surgery is needed, tube feeding by tube may be needed for a few weeks. These procedures and treatments can be performed in your veterinarian’s office. Unfortunately, a number of amphibians with GIFB and GIO die despite proper treatment and removal of the cause.
The prognosis for successful treatment of amphibians with GIFB and GIO is variable. The earlier the signs are seen and treatment is initiated by a veterinarian, the better the prognosis. Delaying taking the amphibian to the veterinarian often leads to rupture of the distended gastrointestinal tract and a grave prognosis.
Amphibians at the greatest risk for GIFB and GIO are those kept by first-time amphibian owners or owners inexperienced with that particular species. The best prevention methods are learning all you can about the species you are keeping or thinking about keeping, and working with your veterinarian on the proper cage design and feeding. Some things to learn about and discuss include:
- Appropriate enclosure design and substrate
o Gravel should be too large to swallow
- Appropriate feeding practices
o Feed amphibians in a separate feeding cage or hand feed with tweezers to minimize eating substrate while catching food
o Provide prey items that are shorter and thinner than the distance between the individual amphibian’s eyes.
- Don’t overfeed amphibians.
o Discuss with your veterinarian and learn about the species from breeders and in books and on the internet (only use sources approved by your veterinarian as there is a lot of misinformation out there).