Why do dogs get sensitive stomachs?

December 19th, 2014
Why do dogs get sensitive stomachs?

Why do dogs get sensitive stomachs? Kylie Baracz discovers why they can occur and how you can prevent them.

Sensitive stomachs in canines can occur for many reasons. They may be caused by a dietary sensitivity, food allergy, an intolerance or a gastrointestinal disease.

Dr Martine Perkins, veterinarian from Pymble Veterinary Clinic, says because there are a number of reasons why this can occur, you need to make sure there are no underlying issues.

“First, it is important to rule out an underlying issue such as parasites, infectious agents, toxicity from spoiled food or pancreatic disease,” says Dr Perkins.

“Many of these disturbances can cause a short-term dietary sensitivity which responds to both nutritional and pharmacologic therapy. Longer-term dietary sensitivities can result from a true food allergy or food intolerance, or from conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Although no obvious cause for IBD can usually be identified, food sensitivity seems to be a possible culprit, and modifying the diet can palliate signs in some instances.”

Food allergies

A food allergy is when a pet has an immunologic reaction to a food and this is usually to a particular protein source.

“In 15 studies, including 278 dogs, the most commonly identified food allergens reported were beef, dairy and wheat respectively,” Dr Perkins says.

“Dogs with food intolerances, however, may not be allergic to food proteins but may benefit from diets with certain qualities such as being highly digestible or having an improved ratio of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids or including prebiotics in the diet.”

Another issue to address is that dogs can develop food allergies after prolonged exposure to one brand or one form of food. On the other hand, reactions resulting from food intolerance may occur after a single exposure to a certain food ingredient.

“Although food additives are frequently incriminated as causing problems in dogs and cats, few data confirm this perception,” says Dr Perkins.

Carbohydrate intolerance

Carbohydrate intolerance is often seen by vets due to a sudden change in diet or after an episode of gastrointestinal disease. As you may have noticed in the recommendations on the side of pet food bags, several days are required for the intestine to adapt to changes in food carbohydrate sources. Your veterinarian will always encourage you to change your pet’s diet slowly for this reason.

“Diarrhoea, bloating and abdominal discomfort occur when lactose-intolerant animals ingest milk. Puppies normally have adequate levels of intestinal lactase to permit digestion of lactose in their mother’s milk, however, when given cow’s or goat’s milk they may develop diarrhoea due to the higher lactose levels,” says Dr Perkins.

What are the symptoms?

  • Diarrhoea (often intermittent) or soft stools
  • Increased frequency of defecation
  • Flatulence
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced appetite

Are certain breeds or life stages more prone to sensitive stomachs?

Dr Perkins says that adverse food reactions have been reported in dogs ranging in age from four months to 14 years. Up to one-third, however, may occur in dogs less than one year of age.

“There are no well-documented breed pre-dispositions to food allergies, but the Chinese Shar Pei and German Shepherd dogs are commonly affected,” she says. “Gluten-sensitivity is not well reported in dogs but has been documented in Irish Setters. Puppies are often susceptible to sudden changes in diet, more so than adult dogs, so be mindful of this when you purchase a new pup.”


The therapeutic approach to most gastrointestinal diseases involves a combination of pharmacologic and nutritional therapy.

“The beneficial impact of nutritional therapy is often ignored, resulting in incomplete or delayed resolution of signs,” says Dr Perkins. “First, you should consult your veterinarian to ensure that there is not an obvious underlying disease process which requires pharmacologic therapy and to get the best advice on how to treat your pet.

“Feeding a complete and balanced diet with highly digestible ingredients of good quality is very important, but sometimes that is not enough. In acute cases of vomiting or diarrhoea, often your veterinarian will advise you to avoid all food for 12-24hrs and then introduce a bland and highly digestible diet in small frequent amounts.

“It is important to always allow free access to water as otherwise your pet may become dehydrated. If your pet is vomiting frequently, immediate veterinary attention is required,” she says.

Elimination diets

Because most food allergens are thought to be glycoproteins, protein in food is the nutrient of most concern in patients with suspected adverse food reactions.

“The variety of proteins in the food, their sources, the amounts and digestibility, and whether the patient has been previously exposed to the proteins are all considerations. Protein digestibility of at least 87 per cent is recommended for such foods,” says Dr Perkins.

“Ideally, elimination foods should provide a limited number of novel protein sources, preferably a hydrolysed protein source. Protein hydrolysates have molecular weights below levels that commonly elicit an allergic response.”

The food should preferably be complete and balanced for the age and lifestyle of the animal if it is to be used for more than two to three weeks. Elimination trials are often performed with young animals in which nutritionally inadequate foods are more likely to cause problems.

Dietary fibre

Dietary fibre consists of non-digestible carbohydrates and is used as a treatment of Colitis. Fibres such as beet pulp, psyllium and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) have been shown to enhance structure and function of the intestinal lining.

“Additionally, FOS are prebiotics which promote the growth of beneficial intestinal microorganisms,” says Dr Perkins. “Dietary fibres also have beneficial effects on colonic motility. As a trade-off, addition of fibres to the diet may have a negative impact on nutrient digestibility depending on the fibre type. Psyllium can contribute to improvement of faecal consistency when added to a highly digestible diet.”


Probiotics are friendly bacteria which enhance the normal flora of the digestive tract and can help improve resolution of gastrointestinal signs. Consult your veterinarian on advice about approved veterinary probiotics available.

So are we currently seeing more cases of this type? Dr Perkins doesn’t think so.

“I do not believe we are seeing more cases of stomach sensitivity than 10-20 years ago, although I am not sure that those statistics have been documented. I think we are slowly getting a better understanding of dietary sensitivities, although the term food allergy is still often used too freely.”

How to prevent sensitive stomachs

  • Be watchful: Try to make sure your dog doesn’t eat garbage, spoiled food or anything questionable.
  • Avoid giving your dog table scraps
  • Slow down mealtimes: Dogs that eat fast also ingest a lot of air. Divide big meals into smaller portions, feed throughout the day or try a slow-feeder bowl.
  • Be consistent: Any change in nutrition can irritate a dog’s system. If you are changing your dog’s food, do so slowly. Gradually mix greater and greater proportions of the new food with the old.
  • Feed your dog a nutritious, high quality food which is complete and balanced: Dogs cannot readily digest food made with low quality ingredients.
  • Keep your pet’s parasite control in check: Consult your veterinarian for advice.
  • Consult your veterinarian if you feel your dog has any of the above mentioned clinical signs.
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