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What to do when your dog has vomiting and diarrhea 

February 4, 2013

I thought I might write about vomiting and diarrhea in dogs because of my recent experience with Joey. It happened on my birthday a couple of nights ago.  I rushed home to meet my husband who had a surprise evening planned for us.  I was planning to run into the house to change my shoes and to head right back out for dinner. However, when I stepped in the door and the odor hit me, I realized into wasn’t going to be that simple. Joey was covered from head to toe in diarrhea.  He had blown out the back end of his crate, hitting the wall, the curtains, the radiator, carpet etc.. You get the picture.

This is a scene that all of us dog lovers have come home to at some point.  It is common for dogs to show clinical symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea.  Here is a list of common causes;

  • Gastroenteritis-inflammation of the stomach and small intestines. 
  • Dietary indiscretion- your dog is allergic to his food, he ate human food that he reacted to, the garbage diver, etc.
  • Parasites-more common in younger dogs but should always be considered
  • Foreign body ingestion
  • Toxin ingestion
  • Pancreatitis-inflammation of the pancreas
  • Stress colitis
  • Metabolic disease-kidney disease, liver disease, endocrinopathies (especially hypoadrenocorticism), etc.
  • Infectious disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Bacterial overgrowth
  • Maldigestion/malabsorption
  • Cancer

Questions that you should ask yourself;

  • Did I feed him anything out of the ordinary? Could anyone else have fed him something?
  • Could he have gotten into the garbage?
  • Could he have eaten a toy or material?
  • Did I recently change his diet?
  • Is it a brand new bag of food?
  • Has he shown symptoms leading up to this?
  • Has he lost weight recently?
  • Has he been drinking or urinating more frequently?
  • Has he been around other dogs at a dog park, groomer, or boarding kennel?
  • Are any of the other dogs in the household sick?
  • Is there stagnant water in the yard that he could be drinking?
  • Is he up to date on his vaccinations?
  • Could he have gotten into any of my medications?

Do your own examination

  • Observe his mentation-is he depressed and lethargic or is he still happy and energetic?
  • Lift his lip and check his gums.  They should be pink.  If they are pale or a bright red this could indicate shock and he needs to see a veterinarian.  
  • Touch your finger to his gums to see how dry they are. If your finger sticks to his gums then he is very dehydrated and may need supplemental fluids.  There should be a nice layer of saliva between your finger and his gums.
  • Check his capillary refill time by pressing your finger on the gum until its white and then releasing. The gum should turn pink again within 2 seconds. If it is longer than two seconds or quicker than one second then he may be going into shock and requires veterinary attention.
  • Next check his skin turgor by lifting up the skin on his back or above his shoulders. It should go right back into place.  If it stays in the position you pulled it then he is dehydrated and may need supplemental fluids.
  • Watch him breath.  Does he have an increased effort when he breaths? Is there an abdominal component to his breathing? Is it steady and regular or short and shallow? Increased effort and rapid, shallow breaths are poor indicators.  The normal breaths per minute for a medium sized dog is between 12-24 BPM.  To calculate your dog’s rate count the number of breaths within 10 seconds and multiply by 6. Panting doesn’t count.
  • Check his heart rate by placing your hand against the side of his chest or by feeling his femoral pulse in his upper, inner thigh.  Normal for a medium sized dog is between 60-140 BPM.  Calculate this also by counting for 10 seconds and multiplying by 6.  If his heart rate is very high or very low then this is another poor indicator.
  • Palpate his abdomen by placing a hand on each side of the abdomen and gently, using your fingertips, press them towards each other.  You are only assessing for pain here.  If your dog is very painful then he needs to be seen by a veterinarian.  Do not perform deep palpation unless you are trained to do so.
  • Take his body temperature rectally. Normal is between 100-102.
  • Observe the diarrhea and vomitus. Is it bloody? Dark? Tarry? watery? Yellow? Is there foreign material present?

Next decide if you can wait it out or if your dog needs to go to the veterinarian.  Here are some tips to help you make that decision.

Take your dog to the vet immediately if;

  • If your dog is lethargic,weak, or lacks an appetite
  • If your dog vomited more than three times
  • If your dog showed prior symptoms such as lethargy, weight loss, increased urination or increased drinking
  • The diarrhea is very bloody or very dark
  • Your own physical exam was abnormal
  • Your dog is either very young (<12 weeks) or is geriatric (>9 years)
  • If your dog weighs less than 8lbs and has significant vomiting and/or diarrhea

It may be o.k. to nurse your dog at home for a few hours if;

  • It is a very acute problem
  • You realize a likely cause such as a diet change, garbage diving, new treat, etc.
  • Your dog has been otherwise healthy and appears bright and alert despite the symptoms
  • Your physical exam was normal

How to care for your dog at home (when appropriate);

  • Fast for 12 hours
  • Offer small amounts of water every 1-2 hours
  • After 12 hours feed a small amount of a bland diet of rice and boiled chicken.  If your dog has allergies then add rice to a small amount of his hypoallergenic diet.
  • Feed 3 small meals daily for the next 2-3 days until his stool his completely normal

What to expect at your veterinarian’s office:

For vomiting and diarrhea symptoms your veterinarian may recommend bloodwork, fecal examination, giardia test and radiographs.  The bloodwork would be necessary to start to rule out metabolic disease, assess organ function and to determine the level of dehydration.  Radiographs are necessary to help rule out foreign body obstruction, cancer, abnormal organ size, etc.  Fecal examination should be the first test run on every dog with diarrhea.  A Giardia test may be recommended depending on the area in which you live.  I always recommend it here on Long Island because it is prevalent and it is a zoonotic parasite.  The tests we recommend as veterinarians are determined by our physical examination, the history the owners provide us and the signalment of the dog (age, breed, sex).  For example, if a puppy is brought to me with vomiting and diarrhea the first  test I would run would be a fecal exam to look for parasites.  If a geriatric dog with weight loss is brought to me for the same symptoms then I would be more concerned with organ failure or cancer.

I hope this was helpful.  And I wish you luck with any diarrhea and vomiting you may have to clean up in your future!