Why Ribbons and String Are So Dangerous to Cats

Not a year goes by when this veterinarian isn’t cutting into a cat’s intestines to remove what is known as “a string obstruction.”

Yarn, ribbon, string — don’t let your cat or kitten play with them unattended. By: Johann Helgason

Ribbons and bows everywhere!

You know that cute picture of the kittens in the yarn basket? Well, there’s nothing cute about it. Cats love to play with linear objects of any kind, and not a year goes by when I’m not cutting into intestines removing what is known as “a string obstruction.”

String obstructions are more dangerous than a simple foreign body obstruction (mouse toy, for instance) because of what the string can do.

The cat can swallow the string, but some of it often gets caught underneath the tongue. The rest of the string goes down into the GI tract and gets stuck in different sections, causing an accordion-like effect. The surgery to correct these obstructions can be difficult.

In the worst cases, multiple sections of intestine have to be cut into or even removed. If these obstructions go undetected, the string can cut through the intestine like a saw, and the infection this causes can be fatal (peritonitis).

Often Not Obvious

Many people don’t see their cat playing with or ingesting the ribbon or string. They only know that they have a “sick” cat. The symptoms can be vague to severe: vomiting, lethargy and anorexia to name a few. But because cats can vomit at the drop of a hat, the symptoms can be confusing.

X-rays can be suggestive of a string obstruction, but they don’t always give us a definitive diagnosis.

Once in a while, I actually find the string under the tongue, so I know I have to take the cat to surgery. You can’t simply cut the string and pull, because you will do more injury to the intestines.

If you have a normally healthy kitty who loses her appetite for more than a day and begins to be reclusive and vomit more than once or twice, it’s time to call the veterinarian. If your cat is vomiting but still has a great appetite and lots of energy, it may not be that serious.

It is more typical for a young playful cat to swallow a linear object, but I have found many older cats with obstructions too. These can be diagnostically challenging because the person may not see such a noticeable difference in their 10-year-old cat who spends most of the day sleeping anyway.

Need to Go to the Vet?

If you are not sure if your cat needs to go to the vet, try to get a clear picture of his behavior when you call your vet.

Separate the cat in question if you have a multi-cat household, so you can determine if the kitty is eating, defecating, vomiting and so on. History helps your vet tremendously.

I love when a client comes in and says, “One of my cats is vomiting, but I don’t know which one.”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Ditz,” I say. “I have my veterinary-X-ray-vision-telepathic-glasses right here, and I’m going to peer into your house from my office and determine which of your cats has a tummy ache.”

You can do things at home to save time and money and help the vet and the pet!

Isolate the pet you think may be vomiting with a litter box in an area where you can find vomit easily. Sometimes this may only be clear liquid or frothy foam. I usually suggest an overnight fast to see if mild vomiting will stop if food is withheld. If there is no vomit, offer a bland meal (a small amount of chicken baby food or chicken cat food). Now you have a lot of information to give your vet.

Again, if you have a cat who is extremely lethargic and vomiting continuously, don’t mess around — just get the cat to the vet.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Oct. 11, 2018.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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