Feeding a dog seems simple on the surface: We buy food, we put the food in the bowl, and the dog eats the food. The next day, anything that is not broken down, absorbed, or used by the body comes out the other end. The cycle repeats.
However, we don’t often stop to think about what happens inside a dog’s body after we give him that bowl of food. The digestive system is the collective effort of many organs in the body—the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and large intestine. All it takes is one abnormality to throw everything off track.
If your dog’s digestive system isn’t functioning properly, it affects his ability to receive adequate nutrition. Let’s take a closer look at what causes digestive problems in dogs, signs you should watch out for, and how you can help your canine companion.
Causes of Digestive Problems in Dogs
If we break down each step of the digestive process, we can figure out some reasons why digestive problems may occur in dogs.
A widely overlooked cause of digestive problems comes right from the beginning of the digestive process—in the mouth. A dog with abnormalities in their mouth such as severe dental disease may not be able to chew their food as much as they should or will forego eating altogether because of their tooth pain.
Seeing food dropping out of your dog’s mouth, drooling, jaw chattering, or halitosis (bad breath), along with redness of the gums or loose teeth, may give you a clue that your dog’s mouth needs to be examined right away.
Esophagus (Food Pipe to Stomach)
Inflammation, ulceration (open wounds), scar tissue in the esophagus, or loss of muscle tone in the esophagus are some of the possible reasons that food cannot get from the mouth to the stomach. Signs of esophagus issues in dogs may include repeated swallowing or regurgitation, which can look like vomiting but the food is undigested and sometimes in tubular form.
Inflammation, ulceration, foreign material, dietary indiscretion, cancers, or movement disorders are some of the potential causes that may prevent food from being digested properly or move on into the small intestine. Signs of stomach issues in dogs may include frequent or recurrent vomiting.
Abnormal thickening of the intestines due to inflammatory or immune diseases (such as inflammatory bowel disease) or certain types of cancers make it difficult for the intestines to absorb nutrients from food into the body and bloodstream.
Bad bacteria and intestinal worms can also cause significant irritation of the intestines, resulting in thickening, secretion of water into the intestines. This leads to diarrhea or even bleeding into the intestines (you would see coffee ground-like flecks in your dog’s feces). Some types of intestinal worms, such as hookworms, can also cause malnutrition, as they attach to the intestinal lining and live off of your dog’s blood.
If the pancreas is inflamed or cannot normally deploy pancreatic enzymes to break down food in the intestines, then less food will be of appropriate size to cross the intestinal border into the blood.
If there is gallbladder inflammation, infection, stones, mucous, or cancer causing a blockage of bile flow into the intestines, again, less food will be broken down to the size appropriate for absorption.
Signs of Digestive Problems in Dogs
Clinical signs that may be seen in cases of digestive issues in both small and large dogs include:
- Weight Loss
- Worms/worm segments in the feces or around the anus
- Blood in the feces
- Coffee ground-like flecks in the stool
- Greasy or extremely foul-smelling feces
If you are seeing any of the above clinical signs, then your dog may have a digestive problem. Please note that many of these clinical signs can be seen in numerous other medical conditions, so getting a physical exam and some testing performed is the only way to know for sure what is happening in your dog’s body.
Diagnosing Digestive Problems in Dogs
Because there are so many potential causes of digestive problems, there is unfortunately not one quick way to determine the cause. A physical exam by a veterinarian is critically important and should always be the first step.
Fecal testing may be used to look for easy-to-treat causes that should not be overlooked in lieu of more expensive tests. From there, further veterinary investigation can be utilized to try and understand the underlying cause of your dog’s digestive issues, such as blood testing and body imaging (e.g., X-ray, sonogram).
If you have tried all the diagnostic tests your veterinarian has recommended and you still cannot find an answer, another option is to look at alternative medicine and visit a traditional Chinese veterinary medicine practitioner.
How to Treat Digestive Problems in Dogs
Knowing the diagnosis is very helpful in knowing how to properly and completely treat the diagnosed problem. Once we know the diagnosis, then we can use the appropriate medications.
Medications for Digestive Problems in Dogs
If a fecal test is positive for worms, your veterinarian will prescribe a deworming medication, followed by a monthly broad-spectrum parasite control medication to protect your dog against future infections. Some monthly heartworm preventive medications, like Interceptor® Plus (milbemycin oxime/praziquantel), also deworm monthly for additional parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and tapeworms.
See important safety information below for Interceptor® Plus.
If your dog is already taking a monthly dewormer, and the fecal test comes up negative, then additional diagnostics may offer clues to diagnosis or appropriate treatment. Common medications that may be used for digestive problems include antacids, therapeutic diets, prokinetics (medications to help move food in the correct direction along the intestinal tract), anti-diarrheal medications, probiotics or antibiotics. The appropriate medication and length of use depends on your dog’s medical condition.
Using these medications along with some lifestyle changes may help reduce some of the avoidable causes of digestive problems. For instance, ensuring your dog’s daily diet is healthy and balanced, and minimizing table food (or avoiding it altogether).
Dog Digestive Problems Remedies
If your adult dog is vomiting, let his stomach rest for a few hours and then try to feed a couple tablespoons of a bland diet (e.g., plain boiled chicken and rice). Sometimes giving his stomach a break for a few hours can help it to settle.
If your dog is regurgitating (looks like vomiting, but with no abdominal effort), beware of the possibility that your dog could regurgitate into his lungs, creating a life-threatening medical situation. Ascertaining the cause of regurgitation with your dog’s veterinarian and whether it is temporary or will be a chronic digestive problem is important. Sometimes antacids are used and may help.
If your dog is having diarrhea, feed him a bland diet for several days and give him a daily pet-specific probiotic.
If you notice that your dog is losing weight and you have not changed anything in his routine or diet, then a veterinary visit may be necessary. If you would like to try to supplement his calorie intake, you can feed him more of his adult dog food daily, or you can switch to a puppy food or a food labeled “for all life stages,” which has a higher energy density than adult dog food. If your dog is still losing weight, bring him to a veterinarian right away to figure out why.
If your dog is eating less than he normally eats, you can try a few different things. First, you could also offer him a small amount of highly-digestible, low-fat bland diet or try freezing some bone broth in ice cube trays and offer it to your dog as a treat or in his normal food. You can add a tablespoon of low-sodium chicken or beef broth onto his normal food or even offer a jar of baby food (a flavor with meat). If inappetence lasts for more than a day or two, bring your dog to the veterinarian right away to determine the cause and get him some supportive care.
Puppy Note: If you have a puppy (<1 year of age) exhibiting any of the above clinical signs for more than a few hours, the situation can be more critical and warrants a trip to the vet much sooner than an adult dog.
How to Prevent Digestive Problems in Dogs
Prevention is always the best medicine. While some of the causes of digestive problems in dogs can be prevented, others cannot.
First, make sure your pet gets a physical exam with his veterinarian once per year to screen him for medical conditions. At these yearly visits, he can be prescribed his monthly deworming medication, such as Interceptor® Plus. Your veterinarian may also recommend a monthly tick and flea control medication, such as Credelio® (lotilaner). Infected fleas can transmit a common type of tapeworm to your dog that could cause unexpected weight loss.
Second, do not feed your dog from your plate. Dogs can be very sensitive to certain foods that can cause stomach upset, vomiting, diarrhea, or inappetence.
Third, try to teach your dog the command “leave it.” This may help dogs who love eating unknown items from the side of the road during walks or other dogs’ feces at the dog park. By potentially stopping your dog from consuming questionable items, you can help avoid the intestinal upset that may result.
Credelio kills adult fleas and is indicated for the treatment and prevention of flea infestations, treatment and control of tick infestations (lone star tick, American dog tick, black-legged tick, and brown dog tick) for one month in dogs and puppies 8 weeks and older and 4.4 pounds or greater.
Credelio Important Safety Information
Lotilaner is a member of the isoxazoline class of drugs. This class has been associated with neurologic adverse reactions including tremors, incoordination, and seizures. Seizures have been reported in dogs receiving this class of drugs, even in dogs without a history of seizures. Use with caution in dogs with a history of seizures or neurologic disorders. The safe use of Credelio in breeding, pregnant or lactating dogs has not been evaluated. The most frequently reported adverse reactions are weight loss, elevated blood urea nitrogen, increased urination, and diarrhea. For complete safety information, please see Credelio product label or ask your veterinarian.
Interceptor Plus Indications
Interceptor Plus prevents heartworm disease and treats and controls adult roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, and tapeworm infections in dogs and puppies 6 weeks or older and 2 pounds or greater.
Interceptor Plus Important Safety Information
Treatment with fewer than 6 monthly doses after the last exposure to mosquitoes may not provide complete heartworm prevention. Prior to administration of Interceptor Plus, dogs should be tested for existing heartworm infections. The safety of Interceptor Plus has not been evaluated in dogs used for breeding or in lactating females. The following adverse reactions have been reported in dogs after administration of milbemycin oxime or praziquantel: vomiting, diarrhea, decreased activity, incoordination, weight loss, convulsions, weakness, and salivation. For complete safety information, please see Interceptor Plus product label or ask your veterinarian.
Disclaimer: The author received compensation from Elanco US Inc., the maker of Interceptor Plus and Credelio, for her services in writing this article.
Credelio and Interceptor are trademarks of Elanco or its affiliates.
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