Normal functioning of the digestive system is one of the key signs of good health - in humans and animals. This topic is difficult to discuss without getting distasteful, but essentially, when there’s a digestive upset, the consequences are that food is rejected by the body. This can happen directly from the stomach (vomiting) or from the intestines (diarrheoa). These signs are common in dogs, and owners often wonder about the best way to deal with them.
What causes an upset stomach in dogs
There are many possible causes of vomiting and diarrhoea in dogs: entire textbooks have been written on the topic. The most common cause is simple: scavenging. Dogs have evolved to “eat first and ask questions later”. (Cats are far more finicky eaters, and as a result, they are less likely to suffer from this type of upset). When a dog eats something that really ought to have been left alone (the list of possibilities is too long to itemise), the consequence is commonly that their digestive tract becomes inflamed (red and irritated).
Inflammation of the stomach causes muscle contractions which result in vomiting
Inflammation of the intestines causes muscle contractions which cause increased speed of the intestinal contents through the digestive tract: there is not enough time for the fluid component to be absorbed back into the body, which explains why diarrhoea is the result.
There are many other possible causes of an upset digestive system, including diet, viruses, bacteria, allergic reactions and parasites.
Does warm weather increase the chances of an upset stomach?
In warmer weather, organic material tends to “go off” more quickly, due to more rapid bacterial and fungal proliferation. (e.g. bread goes mouldy more quickly in summer). This means that in warm weather dogs are more likely to pick up semi-rotten decaying material which is more likely to upset their digestive system. It’s also likely that dogs socialise more in warmer weather (owners take their dogs for walks more often) and this will lead to quicker spread of viral infections through the dog population.
For both these reasons, vets often see a spike in gastro-intestinal upsets in dogs during spells of warmer weather.
Does a dog with an upset stomach need to go to the vet?
Vomiting and diarrhoea are common, and can develop into a serious, life threatening problem, but that does not mean that every dog with the most minor gastric upset needs to be rushed to the vet at once. It’s common for mild problems to be self-limiting: i.e. they get better by themselves with a simple approach. If your dog vomits once, or if he suffers from a one-off bout of diarrhoea, it’s important to take note of this and to instigate simple home treatment.
An immediate visit to the vet is needed:
If your dog suffers repeated frequent recurring bouts of retching, vomiting or diarrhoea over a few hours
If your dog becomes dull and depressed or seems to be in pain
If your dog’s abdomen swells up in a visible way
If blood is seen in the vomit or diarrhoea
If the vomiting or diarrhea continues for more than 24 hours
What do you feed a sick dog?
The first and simplest response to any dog with an upset stomach is to instigate a brief fast: in many cases, the dog will refuse food temporarily in any case. While it used to be recommended that affected dogs were fasted for a full 24 hours, a shorter fast (e.g. twelve hours) is often enough. Water (or sugar/salt rehydrating fluid from the vet) should be offered in small quantities.
Food - of any kind - should only be offered when the digestive tract has recovered, and there is no longer any sign of vomiting, or when the frequency of diarrhoea has diminished.
After the brief fast, a special bland diet should be fed for 24 to 48 hours. The ideal diet would be low fat, highly digestible and palatable. Many pet owners prefer to buy proprietary pet food designed for this purpose (so-called “gastro-intestinal” type diets, sold via vets and pet shops), while others use home-prepared versions (e.g. cooked chicken mixed with boiled white rice). The chosen food should be given in small quantities, two or three times daily, for two to three days. Once the signs of an upset stomach have fully settled down, the original diet can be introduced gradually, by mixing half-on-half with the bland diet for the first day.
How to clear up vomiting in dogs
In most simple cases, simple fasting followed by bland food is sufficient to cure a vomiting dog. If an animal continues to vomit despite this approach, a visit to the vet is needed: a physical examination and/or tests may reveal a more serious underlying cause (such as an obstruction, liver or kidney problems, or a long list of other possibilities). In some cases, even when simple scavenging is the cause of the vomiting, extra medication may be needed (such as anti-emetics to quell the vomiting reflex, and anti-acid drugs to lessen acid production in the stomach).
How to clear up diarrhoea in dogs
As with vomiting, in simple cases, the withholding of food for a spell followed by feeding a highly digestible diet is enough to cure diarrhoea. If the problem continues despite this approach, you need to take your dog to the vet for a full examination and perhaps for further investigations.
What can you give a dog for diarrhea?
In the past, anti-diarrhoeal products were often given (such as kaolin, a chalk-based “binder”). More recently, it has been pointed out that evidence of efficacy of many of these traditional treatments is lacking. If a simple approach of bland food is not effective, it’s best to work with your vet to find a cure: simple home treatments are unlikely to suffice.
Pro-biotics are a recently developed type of treatment, with the idea that they may help to reseed an upset digestive system with healthy bacteria. While they may play a role as part of a broad treatment plan, it’s best that this is done in conjunction with your local vet rather than as an effort to avoid going to the vet by treating an animal on your own.
Can you give dogs ginger ale?
Ginger is a traditional herbal treatment for nausea and inappetance, but it does not have a significant effect on dogs with upset stomachs, and there’s no reason for it to be given.
Symptoms to watch out for in a dog with an upset stomach
It’s important to be observant of the external signs of a dog’s digestive system. A normal, healthy gastrointestinal tract gets on with the digestive processes quietly and efficiently, producing firm faeces once or twice daily, with no sign of vomiting or diarrhoea.
An upset digestive system often starts with noise: gurgling and churning sounds may be heard before the evidence of vomiting or diarrhoea is seen. If you take note of these signs, early action is possible to pre-empt more dramatic signs from developing.
The main message of “short fast followed by bland food” applies to any animal that seems to have any type of gastrointestinal upset.
The follow-up message of “go to the vet” in key situations, as highlighted above, is equally important. Gastro-intestinal problems can be minor and transient, but very rarely, they can be the first sign of a life threatening crisis.