For many dogs, mealtime sadly isn’t the best part of their day; it’s immediately followed by unpleasant feelings and experiences like vomiting, diarrhea, or serious gas.
Similarly to their human owners, some dogs are very prone to digestive issues, and what seem like small changes to their diet — eating new foods, eating at unusual times, or simply eating too quickly, for example — can cause big problems. Yes, despite dogs’ apparent ability to be able to eat any and everything, they can indeed have sensitive stomachs.
What causes dogs’ sensitive stomachs?
Dogs’ digestion is impacted by many different factors: Individual eating habits, preferences, and any health issues among them. It’s a complex and complicated system, which means that when something’s not working right, it can take some time to pinpoint the exact problem area.
The sources of stomach sensitivities specifically are also fairly wide ranging, caused by anything from bacterial imbalance, parasites, ulcers, and tumors to allergies or intolerance of certain ingredients. This enormous range of potential problems is just one reason it’s important to cooperate closely with a veterinarian as you try to improve your dog’s digestion.
To begin to narrow it down, vets will often try to classify stomach-related illness into one of two categories: Primary gastrointestinal (GI) diseases and extra GI diseases.
Primary GI disorders are issues that directly affect the GI tract, like some of the examples mentioned above: parasites, bacterial or viral infections, swallowing foreign material, food sensitivities, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and ulcers.
Extra GI diseases are illnesses that affect some other system (e.g. the metabolic or endocrine systems) but have a negative, indirect, but nonetheless important effect on your dog’s digestion. These can include metabolic disorders, endocrine problems, kidney or liver dysfunction, and pancreatitis.
All this can sound very scary, given how minor a sensitive stomach can seem on the face of it. But while professional veterinarian help is the best option to identify and rectify the root cause of your dog’s stomach sensitivities, there are definitely still actions you can take in the meantime to help ease their discomfort, regardless of the internal issue.
1. Make your home pooch-friendly
A common issue among dogs with sensitive stomachs is what vets call ‘dietary indiscretion’. In plain English, this simply means your pup is eating things they shouldn’t. If you know your dog likes to dig in the trash for tasty treats, it’s critical to put some safeguards in place.
Start with the kitchen and bathroom. Make sure all trash and recycling bins have lids and are inaccessible to your pup. Keep your toilet lid down so they aren’t popping in for a drink (your human guests will also appreciate this!) and keep the cabinets closed, protecting them from dangerous cleaners and other chemicals.
If you have cosmetics in the open, especially around the bathtub, make sure they’re out of your pup’s reach. And in the rest of the house, look out for electrical cords (aka fun chew-toys) and small objects that can easily end up on the floor, like coins, bobby pins, and small toys. Any of these can cause severe stomach irritation, or more dangerous problems if swallowed.
As there are more variables with the garage and outside areas, they’re generally a little trickier to prep and police. Scan for anything within reach that your dog might chew or swallow, even from simple curiosity. In the garage, pay special attention to chemicals like gasoline and antifreeze, as well as nails, screws, and batteries.
If your pup has access to an outdoor yard area, check for poisonous plants and mushroom patches. If there are fruit or nut trees, or ones that drop seeds, acorns, pinecones, etc, you may want to rake these up if your dog takes an interest in them. And be very cautious about treating your lawn or deck with toxic chemicals, which your dog may end up licking off of their paws. This goes for indoor floor cleaners as well.
2. Slow them down
Once you’ve ensured your dog’s environment is as safe as possible, it’s time to begin considering their food.
Dogs naturally have a tendency to eat their food very quickly, both out of enjoyment and an evolutionary tactic to ensure nobody else beats them to their meal. As a result, they can sometimes have trouble pacing themselves during meals, and easily overeat.
If a dog gulps down a large quantity of food in a short time span, it can very well come back to haunt them later, when they vomit it back up. This is especially true if they’re eating dry food, which tends to expand in the stomach as it mixes with liquid. Even if rapid eating doesn’t cause vomiting, it can still lead to other issues like loose stools, gas, and belching.
(It’s also important to note that lingering by the bowl and lightly grazing over the course of hours isn’t generally encouraging or healthy behavior either. Dogs evolved to eat rapidly and in short bursts as a basic survival strategy, so grazing may be a sign that they’re not really enjoying their meal.)
Either way, poorly digesting a meal — or throwing it up completely — can then leave your dog extra-hungry for the next meal. This means they eat even faster, exacerbating the problem, and further irritating their already sensitive stomach. It’s a vicious circle.
One of the easiest solutions to this problem is simply to give your dog smaller, more frequent meals. The typical feeding schedule for dogs over 6 months of age is twice daily, but dogs with sensitive stomachs may thrive with three or even four smaller meals per day. Experiment a little and see what your dog seems to like. Another approach is to use a slow feeder — a type of dish that forces your pup to slow down and savor their meals.
3. Be thoughtful about treats
While tossing the night’s leftovers to your pup can seem like a fun and natural treat, even small amounts of unusual foods can upset your dog’s digestion.
A consistent diet is key to soothing a sensitive stomach, and even seemingly harmless stuff like meat and vegetables can still have been cooked for human consumption with herbs and spices that dogs aren’t able to easily digest. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with treats (provided they aren’t making up more than 10% of your dog’s daily calories!) and fresh is definitely best — but just make sure they’re appropriate for your dog’s digestive system to avoid unpleasant effects later.
It’s worth mentioning that you should ensure your dog’s regular meals are also consistently high-quality food. Commercially produced dry and wet foods (looking at you, kibbles and canned food) are made using dozens of ingredients, many of which aren’t listed on the packaging, and incredibly harsh processing methods which can make them difficult to digest for living creatures — especially those with sensitive stomachs.
Fresh foods, by contrast, use far fewer ingredients and are cooked much gentler, still actually resembling food by the time they reach your dog’s bowl. Look for a brand that uses human-grade ingredients and cooks them in USDA-certified kitchens to find one that’s using the highest safety standards and that will be easiest for your dog to digest.
4. Supplement carefully
While certain nutritional supplements can absolutely help soothe your dog’s sensitive stomach, it’s essential that you work closely with your vet before administering them. Certain vitamins and nutrients, when given in high doses, can actually cause serious health issues.
This might be surprising as we tend to think of vitamins as a good thing. But compounds like calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D can all cause illness — especially bone and joint problems — if your dog consumes them excessively, or often enough for them to build up in the body.
That’s not to say you should avoid supplements. If your dog’s sensitive stomach is due to food allergies, supplements like Omega 3s, for example, can help treat some of the secondary problems those allergies cause — issues with the skin, coat, joints, and eyes among others. And if your dog’s stomach is upset due to problems with their gut flora, probiotics might be a helpful treatment. But again, it’s crucial to work carefully with your vet and keep a close eye on your pup’s progress if you take this approach, rather than simply diagnosing your dog yourself.
5. Try elimination
Another likely cause of your dog’s sensitive stomach is a reaction to something in their diet. If they have a sensitivity, intolerance, or allergy to one of the ingredients in their daily meals, no amount of supplementation, dog-proofing, or meal scheduling will help them get better.
For many dogs in this situation, the elimination diet is incredibly helpful. Elimination simply means feeding your dog a new, balanced diet of clean, simple foods and seeing how it affects them. If their symptoms disappear, you can slowly add in other foods, one by one, and see how they react. When the symptoms come back, you’ve identified the problem ingredient.
Much like when your vet recommends a diet of chicken and rice for a poorly pup, simple foods are much easier on the digestive system than commercially-produced dog foods, as mentioned before. The only reason these aren’t sustainable long-term is they typically lack the necessary nutrients and vitamins that dogs need for a balanced diet.
If you’re looking for a fresh, simple dog food that’s cleaner and more nutritionally balanced and advanced than the kibbles and canned foods that have been made pretty much unchanged since the time of World War 2, you wouldn’t be alone. They do exist — some even come delivered to your door pre-portioned — and are one of the easiest methods of soothing your dog’s sensitive stomach.