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What are gastrointestinal (GI) and digestive disorders?
Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders and diseases affect a dog's stomach and intestines, usually resulting in signs such as vomiting (sickness) and diarrhoea. You may notice blood in your dog’s stools or watery poop. Any disorder that reduces the digestion or absorption of food, or alters its passage through the digestive tract, can be called a digestive disorder. Healthy digestion is essential for your dog to be able to use the nutrients from their food to build and repair tissues and obtain energy. GI disorders can lead to dehydration, acid-base and electrolyte imbalances and malnutrition so it is important to recognise the signs and consult with your veterinarian.
Types and causes of gastrointestinal and digestive disorders in dogs
There are many different types of digestive disorders so your veterinarian may carry out tests to determine the exact cause of your dog’s problem. Causes can range from eating something other than dog food, to adverse food reactions, infections, or lack of digestive enzymes. Some breeds, such as Great Danes, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Collies are more prone to particular digestive problems. Commonly diagnosed conditions include:
Acute gastroenteritis. This is the most common cause of an ‘upset stomach’ in dogs. It usually consists of vomiting and diarrhoea that begins suddenly but can just be diarrhoea too. It can be caused by lots of things like eating something unsavoury (we all know our dogs love doing this!), parasites, viruses and foreign bodies, to name but a few.
Chronic enteropathy or Inflammatory bowel disease. Unlike the sudden onset upset we just mentioned, chronic enteropathies are slower to appear and tend to last a long time. Diarrhoea and weight loss are common signs. Again, it can be caused by many different things such as adverse food reactions and genetics
Colitis. The colon is part of the large bowel and when this gets inflamed it’s called colitis. It’s usually very characteristic and most dogs show the same signs - looking like they urgently need to have a poo, they might strain to have a poo but not much comes out, and one of the classic signs of colitis is fresh blood and/or slimy mucus in the stools.
Pancreatitis. This is a serious condition in dogs and can be life-threatening. Common signs of pancreatitis are sudden onset vomiting, depression and lack of appetite. It’s also a very painful condition so your dog may be restless and adopt the ‘play bow’ position to try to ease the pain. If you have any concerns that your dog might have pancreatitis get them to the vet as soon as you can.
EPI - exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. This complicated-sounding name describes a condition where dogs are lacking certain enzymes needed for digestion. The pancreas produces some of these and when they are lacking the food passes straight through without the dog being able to get at the nutrients. Dogs with EPI tend to be ravenously hungry but still lose weight and look in poor condition. Because they don’t digest fat well, their stools may be greyish in colour. Some breeds such as German shepherds are more prone to it than others. Usually supplementing the diet with the missing enzymes gives a good result.
Food allergies. Dogs can react badly to certain foods for a number of reasons and together we call these adverse food reactions. True food allergies are rarer than people think and they tend to be caused by proteins in foods such as beef and chicken. Food allergies can cause vomiting and diarrhoea and also skin issues like itchiness.
Constipation. The same as in humans, when dogs are constipated, they find pooping difficult and they might go to the toilet much less frequently. Constipation can be caused by lots of things. Eating bones can make the stools hard and difficult to pass, dehydration or a sluggish bowel will also mean that the stools are dry and difficult to shift.
Does my dog have a digestive disorder?
The most common signs of digestive disorders are soft stools or diarrhoea. If your dog has digestive issues, you may also notice some or all of the following signs.
Chronic GI disease can be a debilitating problem for many dogs and requires testing and a thorough diagnosis from your veterinarian.
IMPORTANT: If your dog has diarrhoea or is vomiting, they may become severely dehydrated. Consult your veterinarian if you notice any of the signs above.
Treatment: The importance of nutrition
Digestive disorders are quite common and most clear up within a few days. But some dogs need long-term management because they have regular or permanent digestive problems.
Your dog’s food can have a significant impact on their GI tract health. A number of different nutritional approaches could be recommended depending on the specific diagnosis and the signs/symptoms. The main goal is to alleviate your dog’s symptoms of vomiting and/or diarrhoea. Veterinarians recommend feeding dogs with this condition a food that is highly digestible to help prevent irritation to the sensitive stomach and intestines. Soluble and insoluble fibre combined with moderate fat levels also help support your dog’s intestine to function properly. It is also important to monitor your dog’s hydration during the recovery phase to help correct any fluid deficiencies.
Because several of these gastrointestinal conditions may be ongoing, long-term nutritional management of the disorder may be required. For accurate diagnosis and treatment options, always consult your veterinarian for a recommendation of the best food for your dog’s digestive health.
Digestive Health Questions to Ask Your Veterinarian:
- Are there any foods I should avoid giving my dog to ensure a healthy digestive system?
- Ask how human food (such as chocolate) can affect your dog’s health.
- Would you recommend a therapeutic dog food for my dog’s digestive health?
- Ask about special nutritional needs for your dog
- How much / how often you should feed the recommended food to your dog
- Discuss which treats you can feed your dog with the recommended food
- How quickly should I expect to see signs of improvement in my dog’s condition?
- Can you provide me with written instructions or a handout on digestive health?
- What is the best way (email/phone) to reach you or your hospital if I have questions?
- Ask if you need a follow-up appointment.
- Ask if a reminder email or notice will be sent.
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA and Dr. Emma Milne BVSc FRCVS