Digestive Issues in Dogs: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment
An upset stomach is one of the most common reasons for dogs to see their veterinarian. However, not all stomach problems in dogs are alike.
While many digestive issues appear similar, there are actually many different causes and underlying health conditions (which range from mild to very serious) that can lead to symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea.
Here are some important things to know about dog stomach issues.
Symptoms of Digestive Issues in Dogs
Gastrointestinal issues refer to disorders of the stomach (gastro-) or intestines, or other digestive problems. Here are the most common signs you’ll see if your pup has an upset stomach.
- Diarrhea, with or without blood or mucus.
- Increased gas or flatulence.
- A lack of appetite.
- Weight loss.
- Abdominal pain (you may notice a hunched posture, a “praying” posture with the forelimbs and chest on the floor while the hind end is raised, or yelping when you try to pick up your pup).
- Abdominal enlargement/distension.
- Distress or inability to get comfortable.
Keep in mind that dogs usually won’t have all of these symptoms at once, so even just one or two of these signs can be a cause for concern.
When Is a Veterinary Visit Needed for Stomach Issues in Dogs?
The short answer is, when in doubt, it’s better to be on the safe side and call your vet — or seek emergency veterinary care if it’s after hours and your pet seems very ill. That’s because certain conditions can be very serious and even life-threatening.
Sometimes, it’s surprisingly difficult to tell whether or not a stomach problem is serious. And even mild conditions may become serious (and more challenging/expensive to treat) if left untreated for too long.
So always err on the side of caution. With that in mind, here are a few things that warrant an urgent veterinary visit:
- Your pet is a young puppy, an older senior, or suffers from a chronic health condition.
- Vomiting or diarrhea is severe or very bloody.
- Stomach upset is accompanied by symptoms such as listlessness, dehydration, or fever.
- Your pet is exhibiting abdominal pain.
- Your pet is showing symptoms of bloat, especially in breeds that are prone to the condition (more on this below).
What Causes Gastrointestinal Issues in Dogs?
There are dozens (maybe even hundreds) of causes of stomach/intestinal upset in dogs.
Digestive issues can present in a number of different ways, including obvious symptoms (like vomiting) or subtle changes in behavior that may be more difficult to detect. Digestive health issues may present suddenly, or be more chronic and subtle in nature.
Below we’ll cover some of the most common causes of digestive problems in dogs.
Dietary Indiscretion or Food-Related Causes of Digestive Upset
A dietary indiscretion means that a dog ate something they shouldn’t have, such as garbage, table scraps, or something they picked up from the ground during their walk. This is one of the most common causes of stomach upset, and it may range from mild, transient symptoms to severe vomiting and diarrhea that requires medical care.
Digestive problems can also occur during a food change, even when changing to a healthy food. For that reason, all food changes should be done slowly over 1-2 weeks to allow the body time to adjust.
Believe it or not, stress can cause dogs to have stomach upset. This is one of the most common causes of diarrhea during travel or boarding. If your pup is prone to this issue, it may help to discuss preventive treatments with your vet prior to any boarding, traveling, or big changes at home.
Infectious Causes of Dog Stomach/Intestinal Problems
Young puppies are most prone to infectious diseases — especially viruses like Parvovirus that can be fatal — since their immune systems are not yet fully developed. So it’s always a good idea to schedule a vet visit ASAP for a puppy with gastrointestinal problems. But, dogs of any age are susceptible to certain bacterial, viral, or even fungal (depending on geographic location) infections.
Intestinal parasites such as worms or Giardia are also very common in dogs. Fortunately, most parasites respond well to treatment, but left untreated may cause more severe illness.
Inflammatory Conditions of the Digestive Tract
Some dogs may develop food allergies, or even inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Not all the causes of these conditions are understood, and diagnosis may involve a feeding trial on a specific type of food with limited ingredients.
Once diagnosed, treatment often involves strict adherence to a diet that works best for that individual dog, as well as certain supplements or medications to manage symptoms.
Certain foods (such as chocolate) or other substances (household chemicals, poisons, or even certain types of plants and flowers) may cause digestive upset if a dog eats them. Additionally, many of these toxins cause additional effects on the body (such as tremors, changes in heart rate, etc.) and some can be fatal.
Many human medications are also toxic to pets. Also, some non-toxic medications (such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatories) that are prescribed to pets for other medical conditions may carry risks of certain side effects, such as diarrhea or even stomach ulcers.
Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV or Bloat) in Dogs
GDV is a condition in which the stomach twists and rotates, trapping gases inside. This causes the stomach to expand, resulting in internal bleeding, irreversible damage to the stomach and spleen, stomach rupture, shock, and death.
Unfortunately, this can all happen fairly quickly (sometimes within an hour or two), and may be fatal even with treatment (although risks increase the longer treatment is delayed). So the condition should ALWAYS be treated as an emergency.
The most common symptoms of GDV in dogs include retching (making a vomiting motion without producing any vomit), a distended and painful stomach, panting, and restlessness/inability to settle down and get comfortable.
Surgery is necessary to treat GDV. It involves returning the stomach to its correct position (and “tacking” it to the abdominal wall to prevent recurrences), as well as removing damaged tissue to allow for healing. Extensive supportive care and hospitalization are also required.
While any dog may develop GDV, the condition is most common in large, deep-chested breeds such as Great Danes and Standard Poodles. A family history of GDV also means an increased risk.
Unfortunately, the genetic risk makes it difficult to prevent GDV. However, there are some things you can do, especially if your pup is an at-risk breed:
- Divide food into 2-3 smaller meals throughout the day (rather than one big meal).
- Avoid stress as much as possible.
- Keep food and water bowls on the floor. Don’t elevate them.
- Don’t exercise your dog for an hour before and after meals.
Certain dogs can also benefit from having preventive surgery, i.e. stomach tacking to the abdominal wall on a preventive basis. This is commonly combined with a spay or neuter surgery.
Pancreatitis in Dogs
Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas, an organ near the stomach and intestines that produces insulin (for blood sugar regulation) as well as important digestive enzymes. A common cause of pancreatitis is ingestion of too much fatty food—especially table scraps.
Inflammation of the pancreas results in symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. A dog that is ill with pancreatitis may need hospitalization, since the condition can be fatal without treatment. Hospitalization provides IV fluids, electrolyte correction, injectable medications, and pain management.
In the long-term, pancreatitis that is severe or recurs several times may also lead to diabetes and chronic digestive issues.
Intestinal Blockages in Dogs
In dogs, intestinal blockages may be caused by anything that obstructs the passage of food through the digestive tract. This may occur due to a mass (cancer), hernia, intestinal motion problem, or an intussusception (a condition in which the small intestine “telescopes” on itself). But most commonly, intestinal blockages in dogs are caused by ingestion of something they shouldn’t have eaten.
The ingested object is referred to as a “foreign body.” Common culprits include small laundry items (socks, underwear, etc.), fabrics (sheets, etc.), toys (stuffing, balls, plastic objects, etc.), rocks, non-digestible food items (such as corn cobs), household items (corks, tampons, etc.), or anything else a dog could swallow.
Intestinal blockages are very serious, even life-threatening. A dog with a full intestinal blockage can’t keep down food or water (they usually have severe vomiting and become dehydrated), and damage to the intestines may result in shock or intestinal rupture. Therefore, surgery is needed to remove the foreign object and any non-viable (damaged) areas of intestines.
Any dog may develop an intestinal blockage. However, the condition is most common in breeds that are very food motivated and like to put things in their mouth, such as Labrador Retrievers.
To prevent this condition, it’s good to know your pup’s chewing habits. If they chew up toys and blankets, they shouldn’t have these items without supervision. You can also prevent access to garbage cans, get in the habit of picking small objects off the floor, and keep your pup safely confined to a crate or dog-proof room when you’re not home.
Underlying Health Conditions That Cause Gastrointestinal Symptoms
Diseases outside the digestive tract may cause vomiting, diarrhea, or other symptoms. Common examples include Addison’s disease (a problem with hormone production in the adrenal glands), diabetes complications, or kidney or liver problems. Treatment varies depending on the nature of the underlying condition.
Cancer May Cause Gastrointestinal Issues
Cancer may occur in the digestive tract as a mass, or as an inflammatory condition throughout a large area of the digestive tract. Even cancers outside of the digestive system may cause gastrointestinal problems — for example, mast cell tumors elsewhere on the body can increase acidity in the stomach. Treatment may be targeted at the cancer directly, as well as supportive care to provide relief from symptoms.
Diagnosis of Dog Stomach/Intestinal Problems
It’s important to differentiate between symptoms and a diagnosis.
Vomiting and diarrhea are not diagnoses in and of themselves—rather, they are symptoms. They are also considered non-specific symptoms, which means they are associated with many different health issues, rather than just one specific condition.
For this reason, getting to the bottom of the issue — and diagnosing a dog in order to provide the best possible treatment — requires some investigation.
Reaching a diagnosis involves:
A dog’s history. Your veterinarian will ask questions about your dog’s symptoms and anything they could have been exposed to (for example, if you suspect your dog got into the garbage can or ate something toxic). Try to relay as much information as you can — including describing the vomiting or diarrhea in detail — as this may help your vet reach a diagnosis faster.
A physical exam. Your veterinarian will perform a full physical exam. Not only does this include feeling the abdomen for signs of abnormalities, it also covers checking a dog’s temperature, pulse, heart, lungs, hydration, glands/lymph nodes, and more. This provides valuable information about a dog’s overall health, and helps to guide the diagnostic testing plan.
Diagnostic tests. Laboratory tests provide information about what’s going on inside a pet’s body. Examples of common diagnostic tests for stomach issues in dogs include:
- A fecal/stool check for parasites.
- Bloodwork (for blood cell counts, organ function, blood sugar, and electrolytes).
- A urine analysis.
- Hormonal testing.
- Infectious disease testing.
- A food trial to rule out food allergies.
- If indicated, additional procedures such as a surgery, endoscopy, or biopsies.
Don’t worry — all of these tests are not needed all at once if a pup is sick. Instead, your veterinarian will create a customized plan based on the most likely conditions your pup may have.
Often, this involves starting with basic tests, then moving on to more advanced or invasive testing if there is no improvement — unless an emergency condition is suspected, in which case testing and treatment can’t be delayed.
SEE ALSO: Why is My Dog Not Eating or Drinking?
Treatment for Digestive Issues in Dogs
Treatment is directed at the underlying cause. For example, a dog with intestinal parasites will receive a deworming, while a dog with an intestinal blockage usually needs surgery. In other words, treatment is variable depending on what’s causing the digestive upset.
Additionally, supportive care is usually needed. Supportive care is anything directed at relieving symptoms, preventing complications (such as dehydration from vomiting), and helping a pup feel more comfortable.
Examples of common supportive care treatments include:
- Anti-nausea medications.
- Antacids and stomach/intestinal protectants.
- Medicines to relieve diarrhea.
- Probiotics formulated for pets.
- Fluid therapy (for dehydration and electrolyte replacement).
- A bland diet (plain chicken and rice is common) or special diet for sensitive stomachs.
Treating Dog Stomach Issues at Home
If you have an adult dog who is otherwise healthy, acting like their normal selves, keeping down food and water, and only having mild digestive symptoms, it’s usually okay to try a few simple home treatments for a couple of days. Just be sure to schedule a veterinary visit if your pup gets worse, or if their symptoms don’t improve.
Here are a few things you can try:
- A bland diet. Plain, lean chicken and rice is a common option, and many dogs love the taste. Plain, cooked sweet potato can also add fiber, which may help firm up loose stools.
- Always keep plenty of water available, so your pup can stay hydrated.
- Allow your dog to rest.
- Consider adding probiotics that are formulated for pets.
- Withholding food for a few hours (up to 24 hours maximum) may help the digestive tract “rest.” However, this method is not safe for all dogs (and may be especially risky for puppies, small breeds, and certain other dogs), so it’s best to check with your vet first.
Always check with your vet before giving medications — many are toxic to pets!
SEE ALSO: What To Do When Your Dog Won’t Poop
Prevention of Digestive Issues in Dogs
Certain conditions can’t be prevented. But fortunately, many of the most common causes of stomach issues in dogs are preventable.
Here are some tips for preventing gastrointestinal issues in dogs:
- Keep your pup up to date on all recommended veterinary checkups, vaccinations, and parasite prevention.
- Feed your pet a balanced, high quality dog food appropriate for their life stage (puppy or adult).
- Limit table scraps, and stick with healthy options such as dog-safe veggies (check with your vet if you’re not sure which ones are okay).
- Prevent access to garbage, common household toxins, plants/flowers, and toys or objects that could be accidentally swallowed.
- Don’t allow your dog to roam free outside the home. Pet proof your yard, and keep your pup on a leash while outdoors.
Since digestive issues are very common in dogs, most pets will have at least a few episodes of stomach upset during their lifetime. But by taking precautions — and seeking veterinary care early if your pup isn’t feeling well — you can help keep your furry BFF as healthy as possible.