Pet Talk: When to see a veterinarian for a dog’s stomach ache

Just like people, dogs can get stomach aches for a variety of reasons, from eating something they shouldn’t have to catching a disease. Because these causes have a wide range of severity, many dog owners are unsure of how to respond to a dog showing gastrointestinal (GI) upset and if a trip to the veterinarian is always necessary.

Dr. Emily Gould, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses the common causes and symptoms of digestive issues, as well as what owners can do to help their pup through the pain.

“The most common gastrointestinal issues causing owners to seek veterinary care for their dogs are dietary indiscretion (eating of food that upsets their GI tract), ingestion of a foreign object, intestinal parasites, pancreatitis, and chronic inflammatory intestinal disease (caused by food allergies/intolerance or immune-mediated inflammation),” she said.

The most common symptoms for any form of GI upset are vomiting and diarrhea, which can appear as acute symptoms with a sudden onset or chronic symptoms with multiple episodes over several weeks.

“Some animals with GI upset will also become nauseous, which can manifest as excessive drooling/salivation, lip licking, and lack of interest in food,” Gould said. “The development of flatulence and/or loud ‘gut sounds’ (known as borborygmi) might also be noted in some cases.”

Many cases of GI upset will resolve on their own, but there are several symptoms owners can watch out for to determine if a trip to the veterinarian is necessary, including if the dog stops eating or drinking, is depressed/lethargic, has frequent or persistent vomit or diarrhea (lasting beyond 24 hours), blood in the vomitus or diarrhea, or is known to have ingested a foreign object.

“For the most part, if your pet is still acting like itself and eating and drinking normally, there is not always a need to bring them in for signs lasting less than 48 hours,” Gould said. “If signs continue for more than 48 hours or any of the earlier criteria are noted, veterinary care is warranted, as vomiting and diarrhea can cause life-threatening dehydration if medical care is not provided.”

One notable cause of GI upset in puppies, specifically, is parvovirus, a condition that can be life-threatening for dogs that have not been fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated puppies with GI issues should always be taken to a veterinarian because parvovirus can cause extreme dehydration and death within 24 hours without supportive care.

“Puppies, in general, also become dehydrated very quickly, so more than one or two episodes of vomiting or diarrhea in a young dog necessitates veterinary care,” Gould said.

If a dog begins showing signs of stomach upset but is still willing to eat and drink, its owner can first try offering a bland, low-fat, highly digestible diet to resolve the issue.

“Boiled, skinless chicken or turkey breast mixed with white rice or low-fat cottage cheese can be offered in the short term,” Gould said. “The low-fat component makes the food easier to digest and helps the stomach empty its contents quickly.

“However, these are not balanced diets for long-term consumption, and continuing to feed an unbalanced diet can result in life-threatening nutrient deficiencies,” she reminds owners. “Long-term home-cooked diets must be formulated via a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.”

Other dietary changes that may help resolve and prevent GI upset are feeding smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day and not giving a dog table scraps, raw meat, or foods high in fat.

Because the causes of digestive issues can range from mild to severe, dog owners should always be on the lookout for any signs of discomfort. A quick response, and trip to the veterinarian, if necessary, can save time, money, and even a dog’s life.

“Gastrointestinal upset can be very distressing for owners, and it is always better to be on the safe side with having your dog evaluated if you are at all concerned,” Gould said. “While many causes of GI upset are not life threatening, some can be, which is why assessment by a veterinarian is never wrong.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

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