Gastroenteritis in dogs
As a species, dogs tend to suffer from gastroenteritis relatively frequently, most likely because many of them scavenge or eat things that aren’t good for them.
What is gastroenteritis in dogs?
Gastroenteritis is a symptom or clinical sign, rather than a disease, as such. It means ‘inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract’.
Gastroenteritis ranges in severity. If a dog has a more severe form of gastroenteritis, they may be unable to keep anything down and can lose fluids and electrolytes (body salts) faster than they can replace them, leading to dehydration, collapse and other complications.
We sometimes talk about ‘haemorrhagic gastroenteritis’, or ‘HGE’, in dogs. This is a type of gastroenteritis in which the dog produces diarrhoea and sometimes also vomit, which can both contain blood. The bleeding might look as though the dog is passing jam, because the blood may contain clots. It is a serious condition, requiring urgent veterinary care if a dog is to have a good chance of recovery.
Causes of gastroenteritis in dogs
Canine gastroenteritis is a non-specific symptom, which means that it can have many different causes. Some causes of gastroenteritis in dogs are shown below:
- Dietary indiscretion – Scavenging from bins or from the floor; chewing or eating unsuitable food, animal remains, or non-food items.
- Infectious causes – These can be transmitted directly from one dog to another, often through contact with infected dogs’ faeces, or they can gain entry to your dog’s body via contaminated food or water.
- Toxins – These may be found in plant material, cleaning products or garden chemicals, for example. They may also have been produced by microorganisms, such as bacteria, and lead to contamination of foodstuffs. Occasionally, dogs gain access to specific, known poisons.
- Other diseases – Some diseases and conditions can cause gastroenteritis, as well as other symptoms. Endocrine conditions (for instance, Addison’s disease), kidney or liver disease, some types of cancer, and pyometra (where a female dog’s uterus fills with infected pus) all have the potential to cause gastroenteritis.
- Medicines – Gastroenteritis can sometimes be an adverse effect of the use of certain drugs and medications. Occasionally, drugs that are considered relatively safe can cause gastroenteritis in individual dogs.
- Events within the abdomen – Sometimes, structures within a dog’s body move out of their normal position and this can lead to gastroenteritis and life-threatening complications.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis in dogs
- Vomiting – If symptoms are mild, you may only notice that your dog vomits once or twice and perhaps has mild diarrhoea the following day. Conversely, if your dog is more severely affected, they may vomit so much that they are unable to keep even water down, they may retch on an empty stomach, they may bring up yellow or greenish bile or bloody mucus or saliva and they may look very sorry for themselves. If a dog develops haemorrhagic gastroenteritis, they may vomit up pools of blood.
- Diarrhoea - If your dog’s diarrhoea is mild, all you may notice is that they need to go to the toilet more frequently than usual and they may need to get up during the night. Their faeces may be a little softer than they normally are and there may be clear mucus or sometimes, feint swirls of fresh blood on the surface. Depending upon which bit of the intestine has been affected, your dog may produce profuse or explosive, watery diarrhoea. Again, this may contain varying amounts of fresh blood. In serious infections, such as canine parvovirus, there may be small, whitish, solid lumps in the diarrhoea. These are patches of the intestinal lining, that have died and been sloughed off and passed along with the faeces.
- Loud borborygmi – As well as vomiting and diarrhoea, you may hear gurgling or squeaking sounds coming from your dog’s abdomen. These sounds are borborygmi. In a dog who has an upset tummy, there may be an increase in intestinal movement or perhaps gut cramps, and the gut contents may be more liquid than usual and mixed with gas. When the intestines contract, they squeeze the contents along and you can sometimes hear this occurring.
- Painful abdomen – A dog with gastroenteritis almost certainly will have a tender or painful abdomen and you may notice this if you go to pick them up or touch their tummy.
- Mild fever and lethargy – Dogs with gastroenteritis are often lethargic and, if their temperature were to be checked, many of them would have a mild fever.
If an otherwise healthy, adult dog with mild gastroenteritis signs is bright and is drinking at least their usual volume (even if they’re temporarily off their food) and you can’t see fresh blood or anything resembling coffee grounds in their vomit or diarrhoea, they’ll often recover within 24 to 48 hours with symptomatic treatment. Adult dogs normally have enough reserves to go without their usual food intake for a couple of days. Contact your vet team as soon as you suspect your dog may have gastroenteritis and they’ll be able to advise you on the best course of action for your dog.
Dogs whose symptoms are more severe, or lasting longer than 24-48 hours, may begin to develop secondary complications, such a hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Dehydration can happen very quickly in dogs who are vomiting or have diarrhoea but who are unable to keep fluids down or who feel too nauseous to drink.
If your dog has been showing any signs of gastroenteritis and seems to be getting weaker, more lethargic, or worse in any way, or if they’re not getting better, it’s important to speak urgently to your vet team for advice.
Treatment of gastroenteritis in dogs
If you suspect your dog or puppy could be showing symptoms of gastroenteritis, contact your vet team for advice straight away. Collect a small, fresh sample of your dog’s faeces and double-bag it, ready to take with you to the clinic in case your vet needs to send it off to the laboratory.
If your vet recommends you bring your dog in for an appointment, the first thing they’ll do is ask you some questions about your dog. Your vet will then examine your dog from nose to tail and they’ll be looking for anything that can rule in or out the different causes of gastroenteritis.
The treatment for canine gastroenteritis is tailored to:
- Control the symptoms, prevent complications resulting from vomiting and diarrhoea, make the dog feel better and provide fluids, calories and nutrients.
- Identify and treat any underlying cause for the gastroenteritis.
Sometimes, gastroenteritis is a symptom of an underlying problem. If such a condition is revealed, your vet will advise you how this needs to be managed or investigated.
Prevention of gastroenteritis in dogs
Some causes of gastroenteritis in dogs can be avoided to reduce the risk of your dog suffering from the condition. Simple avoidance strategies you can take include:
- Making sure that your dog’s food is of good quality, is stored correctly and that there are no sudden changes to their diet.
- Keeping your dog’s feeding utensils and food bowls clean.
- Throwing away uneaten food – this is especially important if you feed your dog anything other than dry kibble.
- Discouraging your dog from scavenging, by keeping bins securely fastened, removing access to cat litter trays and using a muzzle on your dog when you take them out, if they tend to pick up rotting food or carcases, or other animals’ faeces. They must still be able to drink and pant while wearing a muzzle for exercise, so ask your vet team for advice if you need help choosing one.
- Preventing your dog from snuffling around where lots of dogs go to the toilet. You can often avoid the worst dog toilet areas by keeping your dog on a lead or carrying them if they’re small enough, for about the first 50 metres from the car park or entrance to dog exercise areas.
- Reducing the chances of your dog developing conditions that can cause gastroenteritis, by keeping them in optimal health. This includes making sure their vaccinations and worming are up to date, maintaining good dental hygiene, a healthy body condition score, a suitable activity level for their age and type, and keeping stress levels as low as possible.
Gastroenteritis in dogs could last as little as 24 hours, or symptoms or complications might persist for days or even weeks, depending on the cause. Often, if a dog has eaten something that has caused the upset, they may have symptoms for a short time while they get rid of the offending item and allow their digestive system to settle down.
If the gastroenteritis has been caused by an infection, such as canine parvovirus, a dog may have severe symptoms for over a week. After the initial symptoms begin to subside, they are likely still to have symptoms such as moderate diarrhoea and weight loss for weeks afterwards, while their damaged intestinal lining recovers.
If gastroenteritis is a sign of another underlying medical condition, this will influence the length of time a dog may show gastrointestinal symptoms.
Puppies sometimes develop gastroenteritis, and they can go downhill very quickly, because they haven’t yet built up energy reserves.
Young puppies who have not completed their primary vaccination course don’t have protection against serious viral diseases, such as canine parvovirus (CPV) or distemper. Any newly acquired or young puppy showing signs of gastroenteritis should be checked by a vet as a matter of urgency, whether or not they’ve been fully vaccinated. CPV is a highly infectious, life-threatening viral disease. It’s spread by contact with infected faeces – either directly or by touching contaminated surfaces or clothing. Other viruses, such as rotaviruses, can also cause gastroenteritis in puppies.
When puppies first start to go out for walks, some of them will experience bouts of gastroenteritis. They’ll come across infectious agents in the environment that their immune system hasn’t encountered before and, if the infectious challenge is great enough, they may develop vomiting or diarrhoea. If you’re taking a new puppy to an area frequented by lots of dogs, it’s a good idea to carry them for the first 50 metres from the entrance or car park. This way, you’ll avoid them snuffling around where many dogs are likely to have gone to the toilet at the start of their own walk.
One serious condition seen more frequently in puppies than in older dogs and causing vomiting and diarrhoea, can occur if the intestinal motility (the way intestinal muscles contract) is altered. Uncoordinated muscle contractions can lead to a portion of the small intestine feeding itself into an adjoining section. When the intestinal muscles continue to contract, the blood supply to the affected portion can be squashed and cut off, leading to death of that part of the intestine. When gut starts to die, it leaks bacteria from the intestinal contents into the abdomen, which can lead to fatal peritonitis. This condition is called intussusception. It calls for immediate veterinary attention and must be corrected surgically.
Many cases of gastroenteritis in puppies and young dogs are not serious and will often settle down over 24 hours. However, owing to the grave nature of some of the causes of vomiting and diarrhoea in puppies and because they can develop dehydration and low blood sugar very quickly, if you have a puppy with vomiting, diarrhoea or both, it’s important to contact your vet for advice as soon as you notice a problem.
It’s not unusual for young puppies to have hiccups occasionally. In older dogs, however, hiccups are much less common and should be checked out as soon as possible, particularly if they accompany any signs of bloating. If you think your dog looks bloated, it’s vital that your vet examines them as a matter of urgency – even if you discover the problem during the evening or weekend. Bloating in dogs can have a number of causes and all of them have the potential to be serious or life threatening.
Fresh blood in your dog’s faeces is a sign that there is inflammation somewhere in their digestive tract. This doesn’t always signal something serious is wrong, but it does need to be checked out by a vet, to rule out anything that could require attention.
Sometimes, a dog’s faeces may be soft and mucusy, with small streaks of blood on the surface. This may be a symptom of colitis (large intestinal inflammation). Some dogs suffer from this periodically and others get it when they’ve eaten something that doesn’t agree with them, or if they’ve been stressed.
Larger quantities of fresh blood in your dog’s faeces, whether it appears as jam-like clots, bloody puddles or mixed with faecal or watery material, should be checked out urgently. Bloody diarrhoea can be caused by some serious conditions, including haemorrhagic gastroenteritis and reactions to medication, and early diagnosis and treatment can have an impact on the outcome.
Sometimes, gastroenteritis in dogs is infectious, either to dogs or other animals, or to humans. Infections that can pass between animals and people are called zoonotic diseases.
If gastroenteritis has been caused by a virus, such as canine parvovirus, or by certain bacteria, for instance, campylobacter, the infectious particles can be passed out in the faeces. Some infectious particles can remain in the environment for a long time and they can be resilient against cleaning products and disinfectants.
When cleaning up after a dog who is suffering from gastroenteritis, it’s important to wear disposable or rubber gloves and to use a cleaning product that, while being suitable for use on the intended surface, is labelled as virucidal and bactericidal. Hospital-grade wipes can be useful for decontaminating surfaces. Wash feeding equipment well and soak it in dog-safe disinfectant or a bleach solution and wash your hands well after handling a dog who has gastroenteritis.
Prevent young children from handling a dog with gastroenteritis and try to keep the dog’s toileting area to a separate part of your garden from where children play.
If your dog has a tummy upset and any other pets or humans in the household also develop symptoms, it’s important to let your vet know or consult your GP.
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