Veterinary Handbook Disease Finder

Gastrointestinal Obstruction


Cattle are the main species of interest.



Gastrointestinal obstruction can have many causes including foreign bodies, intussusceptions, volvuli and displacements affecting the abomasum, small and large intestines. Enteritis, abrupt dietary changes, high starch low fibre diets and access to indigestible feeds are just some of many factors likely to predispose to gastrointestinal obstruction. Unless relieved, complete obstruction will develop into a life threatening condition.

Clinical Signs and Diagnosis

Affected cattle may show signs of abdominal pain, be inappetent, and pass no faeces, or scant faeces covered in mucus or blood. 

Rectal examination can be expected to reveal a completely empty rectum with a dry but sticky feel. A ping and sloshing of fluid may be detected upon auscultation and ballottement of a distended abomasum. 

At necropsy there are large distended loops of bowel anterior to the obstruction and shrunken empty bowel distal to the obstruction. At the site of the obstruction there is usually red, purple or black discolouration if congestion, strangulation or necrosis are present. A twist may be palpable at the root of mesenteric, caecal and abomasal volvuli.


With the exception of left displacement of the abomasum (LDA), bold and early surgical intervention and supportive care are required to save the animal. LDA is also often managed by surgical correction but there is less need for urgent intervention. If suitable facilities and equipment are not available, and with the possible exception of LDA, prompt euthanasia of the animal should be performed.


Inciting causes are uncertain, however avoiding abrupt dietary changes, high starch/low fibre diets and very coarse feeds are recommended.