What is vomiting?
Vomiting describes the active evacuation of food from the stomach. Vomiting is a clinical sign that can occur with many diseases or problems; it is not a specific disease or diagnosis itself. Dogs vomit quite readily and occasional vomiting in an otherwise healthy dog may not indicate anything abnormal.
How do I recognize vomiting?
Vomiting may begin with a stage of nausea, in which the dog appears restless, and possibly apprehensive. The dog may lick its lips, salivate, and repeatedly swallow. Vomiting itself involves forceful contractions of the abdominal muscles, leading to expulsion of fluid, froth, or food. The severe effort associated with vomiting may be distressing to the dog.
"It is important to differentiate vomiting from regurgitation."
It is important to differentiate vomiting from regurgitation, which is usually associated with problems affecting the esophagus and is a more passive process. Features that help to differentiate vomiting from regurgitation include:
- vomiting typically involves abdominal contractions and effort
- regurgitation typically occurs quickly without abdominal contractions or any warning signs above
- regurgitation often occurs right after eating or drinking
How serious is vomiting in dogs?
It depends on the cause of the vomiting. Many cases of acute vomiting improve on their own without medical intervention (and without determining the cause) within 24 hours. If the vomiting has not stopped within a day or two, medical attention should be sought to determine if the dog has a more serious disease, or if the vomiting has caused any metabolic disturbances. If one or more signs such as fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or dehydration accompanies vomiting, or if the vomit contains blood, it is important to identify the underlying cause and provide effective treatment.
What are some of the causes of vomiting?
Vomiting may be due to a minor intestinal upset, and can be caused by intestinal parasites or from dietary indiscretion: eating table scraps, garbage, spoiled food, or foul-tasting things such as certain insects. However, vomiting can also be a sign of more serious illnesses such as allergies, bacterial or viral infections, inflammatory conditions such as pancreatitis, intestinal obstruction from foreign bodies (something eaten that gets stuck in the intestine), organ dysfunction such as liver or kidney failure, or cancer.
"...if the vomit contains blood, it is important to identify the underlying cause."
Even when vomiting is caused by a minor intestinal upset, it can lead to serious complications, including death, if treatment is not begun early enough to prevent severe dehydration and nutrient loss.
What types of tests are performed to find the cause of vomiting?
If your dog does not appear to be systemically ill (meaning your dog is not lethargic and/or has not lost their energy), the cause may not be serious. In this case, a minimum number of tests will be performed to rule out certain parasites or infections.
If vomiting is associated with several other clinical signs, your veterinarian will perform a series of tests to try and determine the exact cause of the illness. Diagnostic tests may include the following:
- blood and urine tests
- radiography (X-rays) with or without barium or other contrast dye that is visitble on X-rays
- biopsies of the stomach and intestinal tract by endoscopic examination
- exploratory abdominal surgery
See handout "Testing for Vomiting” for a more in-depth discussion of what other tests your veterinarian might perform. Once the diagnosis is known, more specific treatment may include special medications, diets, or surgery.
How is vomiting treated?
Specific treatment for underlying disease problems will depend on the diagnosis.
In cases where the cause is thought to be dietary indiscretion, your veterinarian may advise you to withhold food for a short time, until vomiting appears controlled. After this time, you may be advised to feed your dog a bland, easily digested diet. A specific prescription diet may be prescribed, or your veterinarian may recommend feeding a specific home-cooked diet, in small portions given frequently. It is important that your dog does not receive any other foods during this period. Water should be freely available and is needed to prevent dehydration. If the dog is progressing well on this diet, the portion size can be gradually increased and the normal diet can be slowly reintroduced over several days.
Minor cases of vomiting may also be treated with drugs to control nausea such as maropitant citrate (brand name Cerenia®), drugs that promote normal movement of the intestinal tract such as metoclopramide (brand name Reglan®) or drugs that relieve inflammation in the intestinal tract such as metronidazole (brand name Flagyl®). Sucralfate (brand names Sulcrate®, Carafate®) may be prescribed which acts as a soothing band-aid to the stomach and intestines.
This approach allows the body's healing mechanisms to correct the problem. You should expect improvement within two to four days. If your dog does not improve within 48 hours of treatment, your veterinarian may make a change in medication or perform further tests to better understand the problem. It is important to keep in touch with your veterinary clinic so that your pet's condition can be managed properly.