Have you ever experienced a case of food poisoning after a Fourth of July picnic or a restaurant meal with your family? If so, you have firsthand knowledge of just how miserable it can be. After dealing with it yourself, you may find yourself wondering: can dogs get food poisoning? And if so, what happens when they do?
Read on to learn more about the risk of foodborne illness in dogs and whether your dog is at risk of this condition.
Can Dogs Get Food Poisoning?
Like their human family members, dogs can get food poisoning after eating contaminated food. And, just like in humans, the signs of food poisoning may vary from mild diarrhea to severe illness.
Fortunately, food poisoning is rare in dogs who eat high-quality commercial dog food. However, if your dog eats a raw diet, gets into the trash can, or encounters roadkill and other “icky” items while roaming outside, food-related illness is a distinct possibility.
Types of Food Poisoning in Dogs
The term “food poisoning” is used to describe any illness caused by food. Bacteria, viruses, and toxic substances can all potentially cause food poisoning.
Bacterial causes of food poisoning include:
- Salmonella: This bacterium is a common cause of foodborne illness in people and pets. Many infections are asymptomatic, but Salmonella can cause severe illness in some dogs.
- E. coli: This bacterium is commonly found in the intestinal tract of many animals, including dogs. However, not all strains of E. coli are the same. Some strains do not cause any problems, while others can lead to severe illness in pets and people.
- Listeria: Infections are usually asymptomatic but occasionally can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, fever, pregnancy loss, and even death. Infected dogs can also pass this infection to humans.
In many cases, however, food-related illness has non-infectious causes. Dogs who eat abnormally rich food may experience inflammation in their gastrointestinal tract, causing vomiting or diarrhea. Toxic plants may also lead to vomiting and diarrhea when ingested. While these could technically be considered food-related illnesses, they don’t indicate the presence of an infection.
What Causes Food Poisoning in Dogs?
Raw diets are the most common cause of foodborne illness in dogs. In recent years, a trend toward “natural,” unprocessed food has led some pet parents to feed a raw, or uncooked, diet. Unfortunately, raw diets are associated with an increased risk of foodborne infections. A 2005 study evaluating 25 commercially-available raw diets for dogs and cats found that all tested diets contained fecal bacteria, 64 percent contained E. coli, and 20 percent contained Salmonella . Although some healthy dogs can eat these foods without developing clinical disease, others may develop serious illnesses.
Less commonly, foodborne illness is associated with contaminated conventional dog food. Although these diets are cooked, human error or equipment malfunctions can lead to contamination. Reputable food manufacturers conduct regular quality control testing, and they may recall a diet if there is a potential for contamination. In other cases, a diet may be recalled after complaints of foodborne illness. In either situation, feeding a contaminated diet could lead to foodborne illness.
Dog Food Poisoning Symptoms
Symptoms of food poisoning in dogs typically include gastrointestinal signs, similar to what you would expect in a person with food poisoning. Dogs with mild signs may develop diarrhea and/or a mild decrease in appetite. In more severe cases, you may notice vomiting, severe diarrhea, dehydration, abdominal pain, lethargy, and fever.
To recap, signs of food poisoning in dogs may include:
- Decreased appetite
- Flatulence (gas)
- Abdominal pain
The signs of foodborne illness are indistinguishable from signs caused by a variety of other illnesses. Therefore, a veterinary visit will be needed to determine whether your dog’s gastrointestinal issues are caused by food poisoning. If your dog is experiencing severe signs of illness, such as repeated vomiting, diarrhea, or lethargy, you may need to visit an after-hours veterinary emergency hospital.
Diagnosing Food Poisoning in Dogs
Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough physical exam, paying special attention to your dog’s hydration status. The veterinarian will also gently press and feel (palpate) your dog’s abdomen to look for abdominal pain and other abnormalities.
Next, your veterinarian will likely recommend diagnostic testing to determine the cause of your dog’s illness. In most cases, they will begin by checking your dog for intestinal parasites. A small sample of your dog’s stool will be processed and examined under a microscope in order to check for protozoan parasites and eggs that may indicate intestinal worms. Your veterinarian may recommend other tests to look for infectious agents in your dog’s stool.
Additional testing may also be necessary, depending on the severity of your dog’s illness. Blood tests (including a complete blood cell count and serum biochemistry profile) can aid in evaluating your dog’s overall health status and degree of dehydration, while X-rays of your dog’s abdomen can help rule out an intestinal obstruction.
How to Treat Dog Food Poisoning
Your dog’s treatment will depend on the severity of their symptoms.
A mild case of food poisoning can often be treated on an outpatient basis. Your veterinarian may prescribe an antidiarrheal medication and a bland diet, instructing you to monitor your dog closely at home. If a bacterial infection is suspected, your veterinarian may also prescribe an antibiotic.
In some cases, however, more aggressive treatment is needed. If your dog is vomiting and dehydrated, your veterinarian may recommend hospitalization. While hospitalized, your dog will likely receive intravenous (IV) fluids, injectable anti-nausea medication, and injectable antibiotics.
Medications for Food Poisoning in Dogs
Common medications used to treat foodborne illness in dogs include:
- Anti-nausea medications, such as maropitant, metoclopramide, or chlorpromazine
- Anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide
- Antibiotics, such as metronidazole, enrofloxacin, or amoxicillin
- Antiprotozoal medications, such as sulfadimethoxine or ponazuril
- Probiotics to restore healthy gut bacteria
Your veterinarian will select the best medication(s) for your dog, based on the severity and suspected cause of your dog’s illness. They will also consider your dog’s medical history, including underlying conditions and other medications your dog is receiving.
General Cost of Treatment
The cost of treatment will vary, depending on the severity of your dog’s clinical signs. A mild case of food-related diarrhea may cost $100 to treat on an outpatient basis, while hospitalization for severe illness could cost $1,000 to $2,000.
Dog Food Poisoning Prevention
The best way to prevent food poisoning is to avoid raw foods. Raw foods are often contaminated with bacteria, which can lead to foodborne illness. In some cases, dogs can even pass these infections to their owners, posing a threat to human health.
When your dog goes outdoors, keep them confined to a fenced yard or walk them on a leash. Free-roaming dogs are more likely to come in contact with trash or dead animals, increasing the risk of foodborne illness. In fact, a 2017 study found that dogs living in rural areas are more likely to have Salmonella than dogs living in urban or suburban areas .
Also, make sure to practice good hygiene, washing and sanitizing pet food bowls, cups, and storage bins.
Finally, pay attention to dog food recalls. Reputable manufacturers do their best to avoid bacterial contamination, but just like in human foods, contamination can occur. Be sure to always wash and sanitize your hands after you handle both recalled food and/or utensils that come into contact with recalled food. And be sure to sign up for a GreatPetCare account to get all the latest pet food recall alerts.
- Weese, J Scott et al. “Bacteriological evaluation of commercial canine and feline raw diets.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne vol. 46,6 (2005): 513-6
- Reimschuessel, Renate et al. “Multilaboratory Survey To Evaluate Salmonella Prevalence in Diarrheic and Nondiarrheic Dogs and Cats in the United States between 2012 and 2014.” Journal of Clinical Microbiology vol. 55,5 (2017): 1350-1368. doi:10.1128/JCM.02137-16