Digestive Problems in Pets: Causes, Signs and Treatments

PetMD Editorial
Aug 27, 2013
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Combating the Upset Stomach and More

By Amanda Baltazar

It’s not uncommon for your dog or cat to suffer from different types of digestive disorders. Fortunately, acting quickly can prevent issues from worsening. Here, we take a look at the causes, signs and treatments for digestive disturbances in pets.

Common Causes of Acute Digestive Disorders in Pets

  • Dietary indiscretion, which is caused by your pet eating something he shouldn’t have (garbage, table scraps, etc.), says Dr. Tony Johnson, DVM, DACVECC, clinical assistant professor, emergency and critical care, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine West Lafayette, Ind. 
  • Viruses, such as parvovirus or coronavirus, which commonly spreads through exposure to feces from an infected dog. 
  • Bacteria, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, Clostridia, which can be contracted via food poisoning and may be passed on from animal to human. 
  • Parasites and worms are typically transmitted when a pet eats the stool of an infected dog or cat. 
  • Pancreatitis, caused by an inflamed digestive gland, by medications or consuming something that’s difficult for the pancreas to handle, such as a meal high in fat.

Common Causes of Chronic Digestive Disorders in Pets

  • IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), which still has an unknown cause, Johnson explains. “It is manageable but not curable. Dogs with [IBD] have periodic flare-ups when you have to intensify their therapy.” 
  • Hemorrhagic gastritis, which induces profuse vomiting and bloody diarrhea, is caused by infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites; it can also be due to a bad reaction to certain medications

Common Signs of Digestive Disorders in Pets

The good news about digestive disorders is that they’re pretty easy to recognize. “The simplest signs are vomiting and diarrhea,” says Dr. Johnson.

Other signs to look for: Loss of appetite; abdominal bloating; or colitis. According to Dr. Johnson, constipation (when a dog strains to poop but nothing comes out) may be another sign of GI disease in cats, but is unlikely to demonstrate in dogs. Flatulence is typically not a sign of digestive distress. However, all pets can be a bit "gassy", even pets which are not suffering from digestive distress. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get more prolific—or stinky—with GI problems.

Common Treatment Options

“In general, diarrhea has to run its course,” says Dr. Johnson. It’s important, however, to consult with your veterinarian on how to treat the signs and the underlying cause. He or she may recommend some of the following: 

  1. Provide your pet plenty of fresh water to keep him or her hydrated.
  2. For three to five days, offer a therapeutic pet food (which can often be obtained at your veterinarian's office or at pet supply stores) formulated for GI problems.
  3. Slowly introduce an ever-increasing amount of the previously given "regular" food over a period of three to five days (or based on the instructions of your veterinarian) until your pet is back on his or her "regular" diet.
  4. If your pet should begin vomiting at any point, consult your veterinarian immediately.

Under the direction of your veterinarian, oral steroids like prednisone can also be given to dogs with long-term IBD.

Consult Your Veterinarian

“Most importantly, make an appointment with your veterinarian,” says Dr. Johnson, “especially if your pet is vomiting, which can be a sign of something really serious in both cats and dogs.”

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