Gastroenteritis in Dogs: What You Need to Know

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If your dog has been suffering from vomiting, diarrhea or a combination of both, your poor pooch just might have a case of gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis in dogs is a common condition that typically involves diarrhea and may be accompanied by vomiting. It can also have a bloody component referred to as hemorrhagic gastroenteritis or HGE in dogs.

Though common, gastroenteritis can be frustrating, scary and — depending on its cause and its effects on the individual dog — tough to treat.

Types of Gastroenteritis in Dogs

Gastroenteritis has many faces. It can present as diarrhea alone (anywhere from mildly soft stool to watery feces) or diarrhea with vomiting. Less often, it can manifest as vomiting alone, though if the condition is confined to the stomach itself, veterinarians may refer to it as gastritis.

Gastroenteritis is further separated into two types — acute and chronic. Acute gastroenteritis comes on suddenly. Chronic gastroenteritis occurs over the course of weeks, months or even years. Acute gastroenteritis usually goes away by itself; in other cases, it will progressively worsen until veterinary treatment is provided.

Staffordshire terrier wrapped up in a blanket.

Causes of Gastroenteritis in Dogs

Gastroenteritis in dogs can have many potential causes. Anything that alters a dog's microbiome significantly can lead to the condition. Here's a list of possible causes:

  • Ingestion of spoiled or raw foods, or of non-food items
  • Viruses (parvovirus, distemper, etc.)
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Changes in intestinal flora
  • A food allergy or sensitivity
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) ulcers
  • GI cancers
  • Foreign bodies
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Genetic disease or predisposition

Unfortunately, it's usually difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the condition. However, this doesn't mean that your dog can't be cured. In fact, most veterinary treatment is successful.

Signs of Gastroenteritis in Dogs

Gastroenteritis in dogs typically starts with soft stool that becomes progressively wetter. Later on, you may notice mucus in the stool, your dog straining to produce a bowel movement and/or defecation in the house. Here are other common signs:

  • Explosive and/or frequent bowel movements
  • Tarry feces
  • Large volumes of watery stool
  • Blood in feces
  • Lethargy
  • Restlessness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea (drooling, swallowing frequently)
  • Vomiting

Dogs may display one or many of these signs, depending on the disease's severity and progression.

HGE in Dogs

Most concerning to pet owners is the bloody version of gastroenteritis called hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, or HGE in dogs. The new term for HGE is acute hemorrhagic diarrhea syndrome.

HGE in dogs tends to onset quickly and may be very severe, in some cases leading to pancreatitis and/or life-threatening systemic disease.

The hallmark of HGE in dogs is bright or deep red blood in the feces. Here are more specific signs that your pooch might have HGE:

  • Stool with mixed mucous and blood
  • Clumps or pools of gelatinous bloody fluid (often described as looking like raspberry jam)
  • Drops of blood from the rectum

The condition tends to affect small dog breeds more than large breeds, though it can occur in all dogs.

When to Take Your Dog to the Vet

White and black dog lays on rug wrapped in green sweater.Many dogs with gastroenteritis will appear surprisingly normal. They may show no signs other than a change in the quality, quantity, frequency or location of their stool. Dogs with HGE will have more obvious signs as mentioned above.

Since it's difficult to know whether a dog's condition will progress dangerously, veterinary care should be considered in all cases of diarrhea, especially for puppies, geriatric dogs or small breed dogs at higher risk of dehydration. Veterinary care is absolutely necessary if your dog shows signs of vomiting, nausea, blood, pain or lethargy.

How to Treat Gastroenteritis in Dogs

Pet parents often choose to treat minor cases of gastroenteritis at home. Most dogs with uncomplicated diarrhea will recover with simple interventions any savvy dog owner can devise. Consider the following DIY approaches:

  • Calling your vet should always be your first consideration if you suspect an issue with your dog's digestive health. They can let you know if any of the below bullets are a good recommendation for your dog.
  • Feed your dog a bland diet for a few days, such as rice and a lean source of protein
  • Add canned pumpkin or another easily digestible fiber to your dog's food (ask your vet for a recommended amount)
  • Add an electrolyte supplement to their drinking water, for enhanced hydration (always check with your vet before including anything)
  • Take it easy on exercise for a few days

The Role of Nutrition in Gastroenteritis

The role nutrition plays in gastroenteritis can't be overstated, especially given that inappropriate dietary choices are at the heart of many cases. You should feed your dog regular meals consisting of food known not to upset their stomach. Try not to change their food too quickly or add new ingredients suddenly or in large quantities.

Vets will typically recommend food low in fat and high in digestible fiber to treat (and prevent) most cases of gastroenteritis or HGE. If your dog has a food sensitivity or allergy, their vet may prescribe a hydrolyzed protein or novel protein diet.

Gastroenteritis is a pain for everyone — not least your pup. Thankfully, veterinary care can be successful in treating the condition.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Patty Khuly

Dr. Patty Khuly is an honors graduate of both Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She received her MBA at The Wharton School of Business as part of the prestigious VMD/MBA dual-degree program. She's now the proud owner of Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami, Florida. But that's not all. Dr. K is a nerdy reader, avid knitter, hot yoga fanatic, music geek, struggling runner, and indefatigable foodie. She lives in South Miami with three dogs, countless cats, two rescued goats and a hilarious flock of hens.

You can follow her writing at DrPattyKhuly.com and at SunsetVets.com.

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