Ask the Vet: Doggie Indigestion
Q: Can dogs and cats get indigestion? And if so, how should I treat it?
A: Absolutely! I’d say that indigestion is one of the most common ailments that we see in dogs and cats. The symptoms can be anything from vomiting, to diarrhea, to not eating, or simply a decreased appetite. Lots of dogs will occasionally eat something that they really should not eat. Some cats will too, but most cats are picky eaters and avoid the dumpster diving unless they are outdoors a lot. Most of this food information effects more dogs than cats, but the home treatment plan applies to both. We humans love to share our meals with our pet families, but most people foods are much too high in fat (especially for small dogs). Examples are pork, ice cream, milk, spicy/sauce covered foods like rice or stir-fry, most beef, dark chicken with skin, and the list goes on. Even some dog treats are high in sugar, salt and fat. Then there’s everything else that dogs will sniff and sample like garbage, dead animals, paper, plastic, dog toys, sand from the beach, salt water, sticks, leaves, etc. All of these items can potentially cause some vomiting or otherwise upset the GI tract. The only things that pets should eat, other than a good quality food, (assuming they have no dietary allergies) are lean beef or lean white meat chicken/turkey breast packed in water (not oil) and without spices or sauces. There are some fruits and vegetables that are OK too.
Usually indigestion is short lived and will improve in a few days, but sometimes it can turn into a severe pancreatitis that requires hospitalization with IV fluids and medications. So I am going to go over a few first line treatments that can be done at home. If your pet is vomiting, pull away all food and water for at least 12 hours! We call it NPO (latin for nothing per os or nothing by mouth). This is very important because an upset GI tract needs to rest just like any other injury. Dogs often continue to eat and drink when they are very sick. Labradors are notorious for this! Also, “NPOing” helps the veterinarian diagnose the severity of the problem. If a pet continues to vomit despite being “NPO’d” they are usually in more danger and may need further diagnostics. After 12 hours of no vomiting, they can start with some water (1/4- ½ cup at a time). Start with small amounts every hour for a few hours, and then gradually introduce 1-2 tablespoons of bland food. You can use some chicken and white rice, or chicken broth. Again, do not let your pet eat an entire bowl at once. Use small frequent meals, then after 12 hours you can gradually increase the volume of feedings. After a few days (1-3 days) of graduated food and fluid increases they should tolerate their normal diet again. If a dog or cat continues to vomit for more than 1-2 days, they should be examined.
Diarrhea is almost more frustrating because it is so hard to clean up. But thankfully, it is usually less concerning medically than vomiting which could indicate a surgical emergency. It is still a good idea to restrict the diet to bland foods like chicken and rice during a diarrhea outbreak. Both vomiting and diarrhea can be treated with an over the counter antacid like Pepcid (famotidine). Call your veterinarian for a proper dose for the specific pet. Make sure there are no other active ingredients besides famotidine in the antacid. Pepcid is one brand name for the drug chemical famotidine and some over the counter antacids will include ibuprofen or another drug that would not be safe. If your pet simply is not eating or has a decreased appetite, it can still help to offer chicken and rice or chicken broth. Heat the food which makes it smelly and therefore more enticing. When a pet isn't eating, I would not recommend offering everything under the sun as enticement. That McDonalds Quarter Pounder or half of a salami is likely to cause more problems than it heals. Most pets would be perfectly happy to eat some bland heated chicken breast which should not further upset the stomach.
As always, if these at home measures are not improving the symptoms in 1-2 days, you should have your dog examined as soon as possible. Indigestion is not the only problem that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, or decreased appetites. Not the only problem, by far.
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Dr. Danielle Cain is originally from Long Island, NY where she grew up riding horses, rehabilitating wild animals with her family, and fostering stray dogs and cats. She completed a bachelor's degree in biology at the University of Delaware with a focus in genetics and the aim of researching reproduction in endangered animals. While working as a veterinary technician she fell in love with the profession and decided to pursue a career in veterinary medicine at North Carolina State University. Dr. Cain has worked extensively with turtles, has experience with reptiles and other exotics, and has a passion for wildlife rehabilitation. After veterinary school, she completed a rotating medicine and surgery internship in San Diego, and worked in several California practices. She then relocated to Charleston in 2005, where she lives with her two rescued cats, Una and Bagheera.