Gastrointestinal & Digestive Disorders in Dogs: Types & Causes

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What are gastrointestinal (GI) and digestive disorders?

Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders and diseases affect a dog's stomach and intestines, resulting in pain and other problems. 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 his 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 recognize the signs and consult with your veterinarian.

Rate that food moves through the body

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 food allergies / intolerance, 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: Inflammation or infection of the gastrointestinal tract, primarily the stomach and intestines. Acute gastroenteritis is usually short-term, caused by a dog eating spoiled or rancid food, high-fat people food, swallowing foreign objects, eating toxic plants, internal parasites, stress, food allergies or substances not intended as dog food.

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Colitis: By definition, Colitis is an acute or chronic inflammation of the membrane lining the colon. It is most frequently caused by whipworms (a parasite), tumors or polyps, a change in food, allergies (including those to food), swallowed foreign objects and certain other diseases. Colitis is more common in dogs under the age of 5 and causes inflammation of the large intestine resulting in frequent, painful passing of feces. Diarrhea may contain mucus and blood.

Constipation: This has several causes, including lack of exercise, dehydration and eating indigestible materials such as bones or other foreign objects, or very low fiber foods.

Diarrhea: Caused by infections, internal parasites, stress, a change in dog food, table scraps or rich snacks, eating spoiled food from the garbage and body organ dysfunction.

Pancreatitis: An inflammation or infection of the pancreas (an elongated, tapered gland that is located behind the stomach). Origins are frequently unknown. Potential causes are feeding foods high in fat or rich table foods, infections, disease or trauma.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: This condition is characterized by weight loss, increased appetite and large amounts of soft feces.

Small intestinal malabsorption: Inflammation of the small intestine impairs nutrient absorption and results in persistent diarrhea, weight loss and loss of appetite.

Does my dog have a digestive disorder?

The most common signs of digestive disorders are soft stools or diarrhea. If your dog has digestive issues, you may also notice some or all of the following signs.

  • Vomiting
  • Regurgitation
  • Flatulence
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea/Constipation
Common 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 diarrhea or is vomiting, he 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 his 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 diarrhea. Veterinarians recommend feeding dogs with this condition a food that is highly digestible to help prevent irritation to his sensitive stomach and intestines. Also, high-soluble and insoluble fiber foods combined with moderate fat levels 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:

  1. Are there any foods I should avoid giving my dog to ensure a healthy digestive system
    • Ask how human food (such as chocolates or candy) can affect your dog’s health.
  2. Would you recommend a Hill’s® Prescription Diet® or Science Diet® dog food for my dog’s digestive health?
    • Ask about special nutritional concerns 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
  3. How quickly should I expect to see signs of improvement in my dog’s condition?
  4. Can you provide me with written instructions or a handout on digestive health?
  5. 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.

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