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What is Gastric Lavage?

Gastric lavage is a procedure performed by your veterinarian to remove gastric contents when inducing vomiting is unsuccessful or not possible due to your cat’s medical condition. The most common reason vomiting cannot be induced and gastric lavage is considered an option is when there is a risk of aspiration during vomiting. During gastric lavage, an endotracheal tube is used to protect your cat’s airway from aspiration while stomach contents are purged. Sometimes referred to as “pumping the stomach,” a tube is placed by your veterinarian into the esophagus and down into the stomach, water is then pumped into the stomach, to rinse out the contents, which comes back up through the inserted tube, along with stomach contents.

The procedure is usually used to purge the stomach of a toxic substance so that it can not be further absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, but may also be used when bloat has occurred to decompress the stomach.

It is a labor intensive procedure associated with gastric recovery issues due to stress on the gastrointestinal tract and is usually used when no alternative treatment or procedure is available.

Gastric Lavage Procedure in Cats

Your cat will be placed under general anesthesia to allow the muscles to relax, control pain, and render your cat unconscious and cooperative in order for gastric lavage to be performed. Your cat may be sedated before being given intravenous anesthesia. An endotracheal tube will then be inserted into your cat’s trachea (windpipe), and anesthesia maintained by gas for the duration of the procedure. Vital signs will be closely monitored during the procedure and complications addressed if necessary. Your veterinarian will then use a plastic flexible tube inserted into your cat’s mouth, down the esophagus, and into the cat’s stomach. A small hand pump will be attached to the tube and water pumped down the tube into the stomach. This water, along with the stomach contents, will then drain back up through the tube into a receptacle for capturing the stomach contents. Stomach contents may need to be analyzed depending on what has been ingested, although this is not always possible and there is a time delay for results so analysis may not be practical. This procedure is repeated several times until the water coming up from the stomach is clear, indicating that contents of the stomach have been removed.

Activated charcoal may be used in toxic conditions after gastric lavage to bind with any remaining toxins in the gastrointestinal tract and prevent further absorption. 

The tube will be removed when your cat’s gag reflex is once again active.

Efficacy of Gastric Lavage in Cats

Gastric lavage is not as commonly performed as it was in the past, as there is some debate on its benefit versus the risks it imposes. Unless ingestion of the toxic substance being purged is recent, gastric lavage may have limited benefit, as absorption will have already occurred in the gastrointestinal tract. However, under certain circumstances, where highly toxic substances have been recently ingested, gastric lavage may be a useful tool. Your veterinarian will advise you on its appropriateness on a case-by-case basis.

Gastric Lavage Recovery in Cats

Gastric lavage is an invasive procedure that upsets the natural pH balance in the stomach and is associated with poor gastric recovery Your cat may need ongoing medical attention, medication and a specialized diet to help them regain normal gastric functioning after gastric lavage has been performed.

Cost of Gastric Lavage in Cats

The cost of gastric lavage will be associated with your veterinarian's standard treatment rates. Depending on your location, gastric lavage treatment will range from $100 to $500 with associated anesthetic.

Cat Gastric Lavage Considerations

During gastric lavage, there is a standard risk associated with anesthetic administration as well as the risk of hemorrhaging or stomach perforation. If a breathing tube is not inserted properly there is also a risk of aspiration of stomach contents, which can result in aspiration pneumonia and respiratory distress. However, when vomiting cannot be induced due to loss of consciousness in your cat or a fatal dose of a toxic substance has been ingested, this procedure can mitigate a severe toxic reaction in your cat and may be considered a necessary intervention to prevent fatality.

Gastric Lavage Prevention in Cats

Gastric lavage is primarily used to treat toxicity in cats. Prevention of poisoning in your cat can be achieved by eliminating toxic substances from your pet’s environment. An awareness of what house and garden plants are toxic to your cat and removal of these plants will reduce the likelihood of accidental poisoning. Comprehensive lists of plants harmful to your pets can be found online. Also make sure medications, household cleaners and other chemicals such as antifreeze are sealed and inaccessible to your cat. Ensuring harmful substances in your home are inaccessible will also benefit other pets in the home and small children that could also come to harm from accidental ingestion of toxic substances.