Dear Pet Doctors, our puppy has developed habit of chewing up items of clothing, particularly underwear and socks. He is a big dog, about 70 pounds already and only 10 months old. He had always passed them through his digestive tract, except once when he vomited up a sock.

We have young children, and it seems like no matter how hard I try, something gets left on the floor and he gets to it before I do. I’m not sure what to do. Is this harmful to him? Aside from the one vomiting episode, he does not seem to be affected by these things.

The answer to your question is a definite yes. You have been lucky so far, but this habit will likely create a serious issue if you do not control it. Of our items of clothing, socks and underwear are certainly the most heavily laden with scent, and that is the draw for many dogs.

To understand why this scent infusion would translate to a dog’s desire to ingest a cloth item, you have to appreciate two things about dogs: They are scavengers, and they have an incredible sense of smell.

Depending upon which study you read, it has been postulated that dogs sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than ours. To gain a perspective on these numbers, let’s just say that it’s 10,000 times better. If we translated that to say, speed, that would mean that if a man could run a marathon in two hours, a dog could run it in roughly 0.001 seconds.

Dogs are extremely scent-driven, and that worn item of clothing with, what seems like little odor to us, is literally bursting with irresistible aroma flavor to them.

The cloth itself is not harmful or toxic, and as long as it’s small enough, it’s likely to pass right through. Problems will develop when the cloth is too large to pass. In those cases it may lodge in the stomach or intestine.

When lodged for too long in the intestine, the item can cause severe damage to the bowel wall, which can lead to a leak and a fatal infection.

The most destructive event occurs when the material is anchored in the stomach, but part of it trails down the intestine. The bowel tries to pass it but only repeatedly rubs itself on the cloth. This is what we refer to as a Linear Foreign Body. These will cause severe damage to a long section of intestine, and are often fatal.

These scenarios are surgical emergencies, which carry significant risk and expense. Time is of the essence, and early recognition and intervention are the keys to a successful outcome.

Signs include a sudden onset of vomiting, often after eating, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, drooling and a depressed appearance.

This usually occurs in young dogs, who frequently have a pattern of behavior that includes eating clothing, garbage, etc., but can occur in dogs of any age, even older dogs who have no history of ingesting foreign material.

Case in point, Ben is approximately 11 years old. He presented with all of the above signs, and his X-rays strongly suggested a linear foreign body. His owner was adamant that he had no tendency to eat cloth of any kind, and never had.

In surgery, I found one of the most severe cases of a linear foreign body that I had ever seen. The intestine was pleated from the stomach to the colon, and, ultimately, I had to remove about 60 percent of his small intestinal tract.

The culprit was a stocking. Inside the stocking was a pine cone, which served to anchor the stocking in the stomach. The rest had made its way to the colon, entrapping the entire small bowel. Fortunately, Ben survived and is doing well, but that was a very close call for him.

Prevention is the best medicine and training your four-legged and two-legged kids is essential. Provide closed hampers and strongly encourage their use. Explain to everyone who is old enough to listen that this could be a matter of life and death for your dog. Training your dog mainly consists of redirecting his chewing to safe chew toys. Keep a variety of chew toys available, so they don’t get bored.

These episodes also can result in problems in ways one may not expect.

I will never forget the time I removed a pair of women’s underwear from a large German shepherd puppy.

He had done well after surgery, and I was just finishing discussing discharge instructions with the clients, a married couple.

All was going well until my technician arrived with the puppy and the underwear in a plastic bag.

The smiles suddenly evaporated and a dark chill descended upon the room as the wife quickly recognized that the underwear was not her own.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.