Digestive problems can have a huge variety of underlying causes. Sometimes these causes are simple, and the dog will get better by themselves, if simply looked after. At other times the causes or effects of a digestive problem can be very serious, requiring quite intense veterinary care.
To be honest, almost anything!
A common cause in younger (or maybe naughtier!) dogs is eating rotten food or other inedible items from the bin or rubbish left around. Like people, dogs can suffer from an upset stomach (although unlike humans, some dogs will never learn and keep going back to the bin!).
Another way dogs can get an upset stomach is when their food is changed; sometimes they need the new food to be gradually introduced over a period of a few days.
Dogs can also suffer from food allergies, intolerances, and irritable-bowel type signs, just like people.
Any problem affecting the gut has the potential to result in more serious digestive issues – this includes twisted or blocked intestines, ulcers, cancer, and many other things. Diseases affecting other parts of the body, such as liver or kidney disease or pancreatic problems, can also cause digestive problems.
In addition to all of these causes, there are a huge variety of worms and bugs that will all result in problems. One very serious cause, especially in puppies and dogs that have not been vaccinated, is Parvovirus (sometimes just called Parvo). It is very contagious and can be life-threatening; affected dogs almost always need hospitalisation and intensive veterinary care to recover.
Finally, there are some medicines that can bring about digestive problems as a side effect, including commonly used ones like anti-inflammatory painkillers, steroids, some antibiotics and some worming medicines. If treated early, the side effects are usually not serious. However, especially in the case of painkillers or steroids, it is very likely that you will need to change or stop medication, so this should always be discussed with your vet as soon as possible.
As you can see, the number of things that can potentially cause digestive upsets is vast! In some cases it can be very difficult to tell the difference between the serious and not-so-serious causes, even for your vet. Because of this, it is always recommended that you have a talk with your local vet practice if you are worried that your dog is experiencing digestive upsets. If they have seen your dog before, they will most likely to be able to give you advice that is specific to your dog, based on their medical notes and history.
Although some cases of digestive upsets can be easily treated or your dog will get better on its own, many more will not without some sort of veterinary attention. It is always recommended to seek veterinary advice, even in cases that seem very simple. For example, if you suspect that your dog has eaten some slightly rotten food from the bin, they might get better at home with just good care. But if they have eaten anything toxic (remember lots of human foods can be poisonous to our pets!), or swallowed something that could get stuck (like a bone or other hard object) this is much more serious and treatment earlier rather than later will have the best outcome.
Remember, too, that things like worms can cause digestive upsets – if your dog has not been wormed with an effective veterinary-prescribed product in the past 3-6 months, this is always worth doing.
If it turns out to be a case of waiting for your dog to get better with time, your vet can suggest some supplements (containing prebiotics and probiotics) which may help bind loose stools, clear up the issue and encourage good gut health, making your dog feel better.
Treatment is very dependent on the underlying cause, and investigation to find this underlying cause is not always a quick process. There are lots of tests that could be done, but instead of doing them all at once, your vet will do them one by one if they think each test is needed.
The first thing your vet will try to do is narrow down the long list of possible causes by asking you specific questions around when the problems began and any observations you have noted since they started. They will also check your dog over thoroughly.
If the diarrhoea or digestive problems started very recently, the dog seems otherwise well, and your vet is happy with their general check-up, only basic treatment is usually needed. Your vet might recommend the use of supplements (containing prebiotics, probiotics) in combination with very small, easy-to-digest low fat meals (something like boiled chicken with rice for a brief period.
In cases where the digestive issues have been going on for longer, or keep coming back, and where diet-related causes and worms have been ruled out, further tests will be needed to find out what the cause is. Your vet may take blood and/or urine samples to check for causes outside of the gut (e.g. liver or kidney problems) and to check more accurately how dehydrated the dog is. They may send off a stool sample to test for infections or parasites. They may also take an x-ray of the abdomen, just to check that there are no obvious signs of blockages which can require surgery to fix.
Food intolerance and allergies are hard to rule out. There are blood tests available, but these have turned out not to be very reliable. A much better way (albeit with more work!) is a diet trial. If none of these tests find anything conclusive, the next stage is to directly look at the gut and take samples of it (biopsies). This can be done surgically with an operation, or using an endoscope.
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