Common Digestive Problems in Dogs

Chances are, your dog will have a few digestive problems in his lifetime. Understand what the most common issues are, and what do to when symptoms arise.
Digestive problems are among the most common reasons people take their dogs to the vet. There are two types – acute and chronic – and how they’re treated depend on the causes and symptoms, which can range from vomiting and diarrhea to inappetence and weight loss.

Top acute digestive disorders

Acute digestive problems all trigger gastritis, and there are many causes for each.

Bloat

Also known as gastric dilation-volvulus or torsion, bloat is common in larger breeds with deep chests, such as like Akitas and great Danes. Dogs at the greatest risk are those that eat too fast, while those that eat only once daily may also be at risk.

Gastric distention causes the stomach to twist, which closes the esophagus. This means your dog can no longer expel gas or vomit. You’ll notice a distended abdomen, pain and drooling. Bloat is a medical emergency, and requires immediately veterinary attention.

Pancreatitis

This is an acute disorder that can be more often diagnosed around the holidays. That’s because dogs get into Thanksgiving turkeys covered in butter, or other foods high in fat. Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that causes diarrhea and vomiting. If your dog accidentally eats a large quantity of fatty food (at any time of year!) and is showing signs of sickness, a trip to the vet is in order. A blood test can rule out pancreatitis.

Foreign body obstruction

We see this all the time! Obstructions occur when dogs consume items that will not readily pass through the gastrointestinal tract. These can include clothing, sticks, or even food products like bones. One of the first signs of obstruction can be diarrhea and vomiting; it’s considered an emergency so get your dog to the vet ASAP.

Top chronic digestive disorders
Chronic disorders can be hard to diagnose, but they can also lead to gastritis.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

IBS occurs when inflammatory cells take over the intestine. Your dog will have chronic vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss. If your dog seems to get sick more often than is normal, and isn’t maintaining his weight, it’s a good idea to have him checked for IBD. This disease can be caused or exacerbated by a food intolerance, so a change in diet can sometimes do wonders.

Toxic plant ingestion (can also be acute)
Many common houseplants – and garden plants – are toxic to dogs. The ASPCA has a list of almost 500 plants that can make dogs sick. Azalea, hemlock, English ivy and thorn apple are at the top of the list. These all have intense effects on the GI tract and may cause chronic vomiting and diarrhea.

Parasites (can also be acute)

Common parasitic infections that cause varying degrees of GI upset are giardia and coccidia. Some dogs with giardia may go a long time without signs, but then develop diarrhea and vomiting. Coccidia impacts the small intestine, which can cause vomiting and bloody diarrhea and can be life-threatening.

As you can see, the causes, signs and symptoms of both acute and chronic canine digestive symptoms vary. They can be sudden and intense, as in the case of sudden vomiting or diarrhea; or less dramatic and slower in progression, such as gradual loss of appetite or weight, abdominal bloating and constipation.

When any digestive symptoms arise in your dog, it’s important to know when you need to head to the vet, or when you can simply observe your dog to see if the problem gets better, while supporting him with home remedies and a bland diet. If your dog is in distress and/or you’re in any doubt about what the problem is, see a vet as soon as possible. If acute vomiting and/or diarrhea don’t clear up within a day, it’s also important to take your dog to the vet to avoid dehydration. The same applies if any symptoms recur or become chronic.

Natural treatment options

How your dog’s digestive problem is treated depends heavily on what’s causing it, but there are some natural remedies that can help.

  • Slippery elm is the go-to herb for the GI tract. Herbalists and holistic/integrative vets recognize this tree bark as a first-line treatment for diarrhea and intestinal inflammation. “I frequently use slippery elm with patients that have common digestive disorders,” says Dr. Becky Jester, a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Herbalist “I see a lot of dogs with sensitive stomachs while some pet owners come to me so I can address appetite stimulation. Other patients may have IBD.”
  • Additional gentle anti-inflammatory herbs include chamomile, raspberry leaf, plantain, cranberry, nettle and couchgrass. The tannins in these herbs shrink up the mucus membranes.
  • High quality food grade essential oils such as peppertming can also be used to help soothe digestive problems, but it’s important to work with a veterinarian or other professional who is knowledgeable about essential oil use

Vomiting – is it serious or not?

Some dogs will vomit occasionally. Keeping track of the frequency, consistency and color, along with the dog’s overall health and behavior, is key to determining if the vomiting is a serious problem. Is he vomiting because he just ate some grass? Not an emergency. Is he vomiting because he ate some chocolate? Definitely an emergency. Is he throwing up bile in the early mornings? Could be a sign of an underlying problem that requires a vet check.

If a dog is feeling nauseous, he will exhibit the following signs:

  • Drooling
  • Licking his lips
  • Swallowing excessively

Typically, if a dog needs to vomit, he will race to the door.

Home treatment options

Based on my experience as a certified vet tech, the most popular go-to treatment for vomiting is a bland diet after resting the dog’s stomach. The key is to skip a meal (sometimes for as long as 24 hours), and then feed the dog a small meal of boiled chicken and boiled white rice. If there is no more vomiting, simply observe your dog. If the vomiting continues, take him to the vet immediately.

When is it time to call the vet?

Contact your veterinarian immediately if you notice the following:

  • Blood in your dog’s vomit
  • Fever, lethargy and/or pain
  • Acute and persistent vomiting
  • You saw him eating a foreign object beforehand.

Keep in mind that if your dog is a senior, and has underlying issues, it’s important to have him seen by your vet as soon as possible if he starts vomiting.

Natural solutions for mild cases

Ginger’s nausea-relieving properties are well known. It’s often used as a remedy for vomiting and motion sickness. “A dog who tends to be carsick might benefit from powdered ginger root capsules given half an hour before the excursion,” says Denise Flaim, author of The Holistic Dog Book. “Because of its properties as a stomach soother, this herb also helps treat indigestion.”

Essential oils can help too. Peppermint is known for calming upset stomachs. Denise suggests diluting peppermint essential oil in an equal amount of carrier oil (coconut oil is popular) and putting it in an area where the dog will lick it. Again, be absolutely certain you are using a high quality food grade oil.

Is there ever a reason to induce vomiting?

And if you suspect your dog has ingested something poisonous, call the closest emergency vet and head there immediately. Do not induce vomiting unless you’ve spoken with your vet first and he/she recommends it. Otherwise, you can cause more harm than good.

What’s gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is a medical term referring to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, usually the stomach and intestines. It can be caused by infection with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or by reactions to medications or new foods. It often involves abdominal discomfort or pain, diarrhea and/or vomiting.

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