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Gastrointestinal problems in dogs and cats.

Updated on October 14, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


The digestive system of humans is quite different from that of predators such as cats and dogs, but for each species, the digestive system is subject to a number of problems and their attendant unpleasant symptoms.

I shudder to think about what would happen if we ate the raw flesh of the sickest animal around, but dogs and cats can do that with ease. I shudder to think of what would happen if we dismantled and swallowed a rawhide bone, or a bunch of loose hair. But dogs and cats can do just that, usually without significant digestive problems.


Dogs and cats love to eat grass but it usually makes them throw up. There are a number of theories as to why. Some believe that the animal has an upset stomach so is purging. Detractors believe they don't possess the intelligence to do that. If they were that smart, would they eat poop?

Some believe that there's a nutrient lacking in the diet, so the animals are "filling in the empty space." As obligate carnivores, there's nothing in grass that would satisfy a dietary insufficiency in cats. Besides, today's commercial diets are so well formulated that the chances of something lacking are pretty slim.

My favorite speculates that the coarse surface of the blade of grass irritates the stomach lining. If you run your fingers from the bottom to the top of a blade of turf grass, you’ll feel its coarseness; like fine sandpaper.

The "cat grass" product you find in pet supply stores is not the same as the turf grass that causes our pets to vomit. They're seeded with wheat, oat or barley grasses. Those hay products have a smooth surface that won't irritate the stomach lining.

A Look At IBD and IBS In Pets

But when their gut is ailing, life is miserable for them. They're susceptible to a couple of conditions that we'll look at over the next several paragraphs: IBD and IBS, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome respectively.

We know that many of the maladies that befall people also befall our pets. Of course, the way we diagnose and treat people is quite different from the way we diagnose and treat animals. People are easier. And people don't usually make things worse just by doing the things people do.

Pets, on the other hand, are more difficult to diagnose simply because doctors can't ask them the things that doctors need to know, they have to sedate them to do a decent examination, and they frequently make matters worse just by doing the dumb things animals sometimes do.

If you have, let's say, an intestinal disorder and you know that you shouldn't eat certain things such as seeds and nuts, you don't eat seeds and nuts. Dogs and cats haven't reached that evolutionary plateau yet.


"Indelicate Moment" Alert

In inflammatory bowel disease, cells that are involved in inflammation and immune responses collect in the lining of the GI tract causing thickening. This thickening interferes with the bowel's ability to absorb and move food and, depending upon where this disruption is, creates symptoms.

For instance, if the problem occurs in the stomach or upper reaches of the small intestine, chronic vomiting results. If the problem is in the lower areas of the small intestine, a watery diarrhea and, perhaps weight loss, occurs. And if you see mucous diarrhea with blood, the problem is in the large intestine.

They don't really know what causes IBD, but there are lots of suspicious characters: an allergy to a food protein, parasites, inflammation originating with the digestive bacteria that normally inhabit the bowel, or some problem with the animal's immune system, to name a few.

Treatment is with medications and a fat restricted diet (fat prolongs the amount of time food spends in the stomach, and that can cause nausea). Vets will often recommend a limited ingredient diet (L.I.D) or suggest food with a novel protein source.

A novel protein source is simply one that the pet hasn't been exposed to before. It doesn't necessarily have to be exotic, either. If your dog never had chicken, then chicken is a novel protein to your dog.

Popular novel proteins include, for example, bison, venison, duck, kangaroo or fish. Some companies are even exploring the use of insect protein, for both pets and humans.

IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is quite different, although many people get the two mixed up. Where IBD is a physical disease, IBS is a stress related, psychosomatic disease. Its symptoms include bowel urgency, straining to pass stool, and mucous diarrhea.

The simplest things, occurrences we take for granted, can be very stressful to pets since nothing can be explained to them. Any kind of change…new furniture, addition or absence of a family member, weather changes, changes in schedules or routines, can trigger an attack of IBS.

Our own gut takes a hit during times of stress, and we have the intelligence to analyze and reconcile situations. Dogs and cats have similar reactions to stress, only they can't readily reconcile things.

To treat IBS vets will prescribe anti-anxiety and anti-diarrhea medications, and usually a high fiber diet. Increased amounts of fiber appear to normalize bowel function somewhat and help reduce spasms.

You'll also be asked to put your thinking cap on to see if the animal's stress factors can be identified and dealt with.

It would all be so much easier if we could just sit down and have a heart to heart with them.

© 2012 Bob Bamberg


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Nadene, Yeah, the high quality foods are pricy. Some of them, at the time we closed the store, were around $60.00 for a 26 pound bag. You could buy a 50 lb. bag of Ole Roy at Walmart for under 30 bucks; of course for every cup of that, you'd feed a half a cup of what I sold, have an easier time picking up a lot less stool, spend less on vet bills, and have a much healthier dog.

      We've got malls and shopping centers all around us, so people have lots of choices. If your vet approves the diet and you have the time and ambition to make your own, that's a pretty good thing for your dog. Thanks for commenting. Regards, Bob

    • Nadene Seiters profile image

      Nadene Seiters 5 years ago from Elverson, PA


      I'm going to stop clogging your comment section, lol! From all of the articles you have written, I am 100% positive that you would be a very responsible pet store owner who would care about the products on the shelves. Unfortunately, where I am located there is one store that I would trust purchasing food from; however, their prices are about three times the prices of the other stores around me.

      I am all for someone not having animals if they are not able to afford them, but there is a point where I determine if it is worth it for me to spend the money on the higher quality pet food if I have the time to make my own that has been approved by my vet. I think each pet owner has their own style and opinions on raising their beloved companions.

      And about the human foods being recalled, I worry about that too! Peanut butter scares me lately, lol!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Nadine, when you think about it, we've had a lot of human food recalls recently, too. Is our food supply any safer than our pets'?

      I still have to point to the fact that there are about 77 million dogs in the United States and over 95% of them are on commercially prepared food. The quality manufacturers are especially vigilant. "Out of an abundance of caution" is their newest catch-phrase.

      When the Diamond facility had a salmonella problem several months ago, WellPet (Wellness & Eagle Pack) had some food manufactured there during that time period. It never tested positive for the bacteria, but WellPet pulled all the product anyway, out of an abundance of caution.

      They recently opened their second plant. Diamond had been handling the overflow from the WellPet plant, but now WellPet has sufficient manufacturing capacity. Other quality manufacturers have their own facilities, too.

      You probably will never see these manufacturers processing for any other companies because they wouldn't want to bring the inferior raw materials some others use into their facilities simply for reasons of purity.

      In my opinion, the high quality pet foods are about as safe as our foods are. Most of them use human grade ingredients anyway. Thanks for sharing your concerns. Regards, Bob

    • Nadene Seiters profile image

      Nadene Seiters 5 years ago from Elverson, PA


      After all of the pet recalls lately, I am unsure of giving my dogs or cats anything manufactured. The FDA has three different types of recalls, voluntary, a warning from the FDA to the company, and an FDA issued recall. FDA issued recalls are reserved for cases that will cause death to humans, not pets. In fact, even if the FDA knows that certain foods or treats are killing animals, until they know what the exact toxin is they do not issue a recall, only warnings that are not always on the news for the average person to see.

    • profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago

      Well said!

    • Pages-By-Patty profile image

      Pages-By-Patty 5 years ago from Midwest

      Well, most toxic or least toxic....the common denominator is TOXIC! We can never be too safe when it comes to our critters! :)

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Patty, nice to see you. Cats are apparently much more susceptible to lilies than dogs, and I may have overstated the danger in my reply to Barbara, above.

      I was thinking of doing a hub about the dangers of lilies, which are toxic to dogs, but it seems that the day lily is among the least toxic of them. I want to peruse more dotGov, dotEDU and some dotORG sites first, though. Thanks for commenting. Regards, Bob

    • Pages-By-Patty profile image

      Pages-By-Patty 5 years ago from Midwest

      Great reminder about lilies, Bob. I used to re-plant the Easter Lilies in the back yard until I realized we had a neighborhood feral who used our flower bed for a napping area. Much rather have a yard with holes and safe animals than an attractive garden without cats and dogs (or rabbits & groundhogs) any day!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Folks, I just want to make a correction. The information I copied and pasted for Barbara came from UC Davis, not the University of Southern California.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hello Barbara, THIS IS AS STRONGLY AS I CAN SUGGEST THIS: dig your day lilies up and get rid of them. Your dog won't learn his lesson and they are HIGHLY toxic to dogs and cats.

      Here's a piece I copied and pasted from the University of Southern California web site:

      "If you suspect your pet has ingested any of the plants below, call your veterinarian immediately. Do not wait to see if symptoms appear, because in some cases of poisoning, by the time symptoms appear it is too late to save the animal.

      Lilies (Lilium, all spp.): Ingesting any part of the plant can cause complete kidney failure in 36-72 hours. First symptoms appear in a few hours and may include appetite suppression, lethargy, vomiting. Cats are especially sensitive to lily poisoning, so be very careful to keep your cats away from liliies of any kind, including the Amaryllis, Easter lilies, and Stargazer lilies so often found in homes around the holidays."

      Just Google "dogs and day lilies" and see all the info that comes up.

      It sounds like your dog has dodged a bullet this time, but I wouldn't take any more chances if I were you. I hope everything is still alright. I'd be interested in a follow-up. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

      Hi Nadine, thanks for visiting. If one of your dogs had a problem with the dog food, I could see that...but if more than one, I'd blame something else unless you heard of other dogs having similar problems with the same food. If it was the food, the problem would certainly be more widespread. I'll bet they're not complaining now, though! Thanks for commenting. Regards, Bob

      Hi DrMark, I agree with you. But if I were forced to express an opinion, I'd go with the latter. I feel that if they had the wisdom to realize that grass makes them throw up, they'd also have the wisdom to know that so would many other items that would be much more enjoyable to consume.

      And regarding your dog's "unfit to print" answer...she had to pick that language up somewhere. Maybe from the birds she chases? Thanks for dropping by. Regards, Bob

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 5 years ago from USA

      Dogs get sick from daylily leaves. I found this out the hard way when our dog ate some and then threw up even water for two days. What did I catch him doing the other day, but eating daylily leaves again. It seems like he would have learned his lesson.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 5 years ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      This is one of lifes great mysteries: does my dog eat grass because she is about to throw up, or does eating grass irritate the stomach and make my dog throw up? I´ve asked her but the answer is not fit to be print. I guess it will just remain a mystery.

    • Nadene Seiters profile image

      Nadene Seiters 5 years ago from Elverson, PA

      I started making my own dogfood because my dogs had indecent moments that were uncontrollable after a while. I tried canned food from the vet even and it still persisted. Nothing had changed in their environment and otherwise they were healthy, but I know all about bloody, stinky stools now. Great article, voted up!


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