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Symptoms of Digestive Problems in Dogs and Cats

It’s common enough for any dog or cat to experience an upset tummy from time to time, but any owner should be aware that symptoms can reflect a more serious issue. Signs of gastrointestinal distress can be very non-specific, and related to any number of issues, so keep an eye on your pet if they show any of the signs below, and speak to your vet if you have any concerns.

Common signs

Vomiting or regurgitation – although similar, these are actually two different bodily functions, and often have different causes. Knowing the difference may help with identifying the issue. Vomiting is a reflex action in which food is forced up from the stomach and upper intestine. Vomiting is often accompanied by nausea – your pet may not be able to tell you how they feel, but you may notice they look apprehensive or start to drool. Food that has been vomited will appear partially digested and may contain bile. Regurgitation, on the other hand, is a more passive action, in which the food is brought up from the esophagus before it has reached the stomach. There may be some coughing or burping, but you won’t see the retching or heaving that is associated with vomiting.

Diarrhea– while the occasional soft stool is nothing to worry about, an acute bout or ongoing diarrhea can be a problem. There are actually two kinds of diarrhea: small bowel diarrhea and large bowel diarrhea, and these present somewhat differently. Pets with small bowel diarrhea will produce a larger volume of feces which is very watery. This can quickly lead to the animal becoming dehydrated. Large bowel diarrhea results in small amounts of feces that may be difficult for the animal to expel. These also may contain mucus and blood.

Constipation– your dog or cat should be producing at least one stool a day, so if you notice they haven’t produced anything in 48-72 hours, it’s a sign they are constipated. Alternatively, they might be defecating, but the stools produced are hard and dry, and they may experience pain and discomfort while expelling them. It is important to note that if your pet is straining to defecate, it is not necessarily a sign of constipation. Some other gastrointestinal issues, including large bowel diarrhea, may result in your pet struggling to defecate.

Lethargy– if your normally active pup or cat seems lacking in energy or reluctant to play, this could also be a sign of gastrointestinal distress. If they are suffering from pain or nausea, it is only natural that your pet will not be feeling their best. As digestive issues can cause dehydration, this can also lead to lethargy. Similarly, if chronic digestive issues have led to your pet not absorbing the proper nutrients from their food, they will not be getting the energy they need to function well.

Dehydration– pets that have been experiencing vomiting and diarrhea are at risk of becoming dehydrated. Make sure your dog or cat has access to plenty of clean water and encourage them to drink. If your pet has ongoing diarrhea or cannot keep water down without vomiting, they may need to visit a vet to receive intravenous fluids. As well as being a symptom of digestive issues, dehydration can also be a cause of constipation.

Change in appetite – as a pet owner you will be aware of how much your dog or cat normally eats, and noticing any changes to their appetite is important for keeping track of their general health. An animal that is suffering from nausea, abdominal pain or constipation may have a reduced appetite or go off their food altogether. If your pet has a digestive issue such as small intestine malabsorption that prevents them from getting the nutrients they need, they may want to eat more in order to compensate.

Weight loss– other symptoms such as abdominal pain or nausea will often cause a loss of appetite, which will lead to weight loss over time. Similarly, if your pet is suffering from ongoing vomiting or diarrhea, they will not be properly digesting their food. If your pet is eating regular amounts of food but still losing weight, they could be suffering from a gastrointestinal problem that is preventing them from absorbing nutrients from what they eat.

Abdominal pain – while your fur baby cannot tell you when they are hurting, there are some signs they may be suffering from abdominal pain. They may be sensitive to touch in the area or adopt a hunched or curled up position that protects their stomach. Animals that are in pain may lose their appetite, become lethargic or shy away from interactions with humans or other animals.

Fever – a low-grade fever is common in cases where poisoning, infection or inflammation is present. Pets with a fever should be encouraged to drink small amounts of water at regular intervals. Never give an animal medication that is intended for human use.

Diagnosing digestive issues

As so many digestive complaints result in similar symptoms, it is important for any ongoing or acute issues to be diagnosed by your veterinarian. Symptoms alone are not usually enough to pinpoint the cause of the problem, so your vet will also need to know:

  • Your pet’s full medical history
  • What your pet has eaten in the past 48 hours
  • A list of recent symptoms
  • Any recent changes in diet
  • Any recent changes to the home environment
  • Any medications or supplements are given in the past month

Your vet will also perform a complete physical examination to check for signs of fever, dehydration, abdominal pain, bloating or swelling. At this stage, your vet may need to perform clinical tests in order to fully diagnose the problem. These may include:

  • A blood cell count to check for infection and dehydration
  • Electrolyte tests to check for imbalances
  • Urine tests that can detect organ problems, diabetes, dehydration, and kidney disease
  • X-rays and ultrasounds to check for blockages, swellings or other abnormalities.

Symptoms of Digestive Problems in Dogs and Cats

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