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Dealing with acute diarrhoea and vomiting in dogs

Vet Jon Bowen shares his advice on how to tell if your dog is sick and what to do to help it recover.

The wild ancestors of the domestic dog were scavengers as well as hunters, eating carrion and rotting food. On the streets of almost every city you will find stray dogs that survive by scavenging. In Moscow, feral dogs even use the underground trains to commute in and out of the city to find food. Given that dogs have evolved to eat food that is in less than perfect condition, isn't it surprising how often they suffer from vomiting or diarrhoea?

Dog eating ice cream (© Jetta Productions, Walter Hodges, Tetra images, Getty Images)

Is it vomiting?
Vomiting occurs when a dog brings up digested food that the stomach has rejected. Vomit contains partially digested bits of food mixed with acid from the stomach, so it usually has an acrid or metallic smell.

However, not everything that dogs bring up is vomit. Dogs have evolved the ability to swallow food and hold it in their stomachs without digesting it. They will regurgitate the food later, so that they can eat it in privacy. This enables a dog to carry food in its stomach, where it is hidden from other dogs that might try to steal it. Regurgitated food looks and smells quiet fresh. It shows no signs of digestion and does not have an acrid pong.

If you ever catch a dog in the process of stealing food, he will often try to gulp down as much as he can before you can stop him. This may be part of a plan to regurgitate and enjoy the food later!

Regurgitation can be a sign of serious illness, such as an obstruction in the stomach, and it can also be a defence mechanism to immediately expel from the stomach anything irritating that the dog has unwittingly swallowed.

A pug with pizza boxes (© Peter Booth, Vetta, Getty Images)

Causes of tummy upsets
Dogs are rarely fussy about what they eat and the commonest cause of vomiting or diarrhoea is the consumption of overly rich or spoiled food. Just as with us, certain combinations of food can be indigestible to dogs. This is why vets dread being on call at Christmas, because we know that many of the dogs who get "their own Christmas dinner" will end up unwell. Giving dogs leftovers is perfectly OK, but keep the amounts sensible (no more than 10-20% of any meal) and mix it in with your dog's normal food.

If your dog's tummy upset starts after he has been given an unusual food treat, or combination of foods, then avoid giving the same in the future. Remember that certain foods that are perfectly safe for people to eat are hazardous for dogs.

Some common medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, can cause vomiting. If you are suspicious that your dog's gastrointestinal upset is an adverse effect of medication, you should contact your vet before making any changes to your dog's treatment.

If you can't think what upset your dog, its worth having a look around the house and garden to see if you can find the source of the problem. You might find the empty packaging of what your dog has stolen! Foxes and seagulls are scavengers, and will often leave behind food remains in people's gardens, where dogs can pick them up.

A Miniature Daschund puppy (© Brandi Ediss, Flickr, Getty Images)

Should I be worried?

Although it's not nice, start by having a quick look at the vomit or diarrhoea.
If it contains blood, or is pitch black and tar-like, it is best to contact your vet. Do the same if your dog has both vomiting and diarrhoea, because it will be at a greater risk of dehydration.

Then take a look at your dog. If he is lethargic, feels hot, shows signs of bloating, has any difficulty standing or moving around, or is repeatedly retching then you should also contact your vet.

If in doubt, get professional advice, especially if your dog is elderly, unvaccinated or has other health problems.

What if my dog has regular tummy upsets?
In some cases dogs keep having regular episodes of unexplained vomiting or diarrhoea every few days or weeks. This can be a sign of worms or an underlying medical problem such as a food allergy. Its best to get this checked out by your vet, especially if your dog is losing weight.

Here are my tips for what to do if your dog has acute vomiting or diarrhoea:
- If your dog is otherwise bright, alert and active then you can start by starving him for 24 hours. Water should be available at all times.
- Let your dog have some rest. Don't go out for a long walk or training session while your dog is ill, especially in hot weather.
- If the problem has stopped after 24 hours, you can start to give your dog some food. Give four or five small meals of plain boiled fish or chicken, minced up and mixed with a little boiled rice. You can gradually reintroduce your dog's normal food over a few days.
- If your dog shows increasing signs of illness, or the vomiting or diarrhoea continues after 24 hours, you should contact your vet.

The views and opinions stated in this article are the author's own and are for the information of the public only. They do not imply or constitute the involvement, support or endorsement of More Than, More Than Pets Insurance or any other insurer or specific insurance product.