Does your dog sometimes skip meals or occasionally vomit and have diarrhea for no apparent reason? Does everything return to normal with little in the way of treatment only for the symptoms to return at a later date? If so, your dog probably has a sensitive stomach.
Of course, “sensitive stomach” is not an official diagnosis. I think that most of these dogs actually have an undiagnosed disease (e.g., inflammatory bowel disease) or food intolerance/allergy that disrupts the normal function of the gastrointestinal tract. Conditions like these require complex diagnostic procedures to diagnose, however. Many owners are happy to forgo these tests and a definitive diagnosis so long as they can find a food that will reduce the frequency and severity of their dog’s symptoms.
The first step should always be to have a veterinarian perform a health history, physical, and fecal examination on your dog. These procedures are inexpensive, non-invasive, and go a long ways towards ensuring that you are not overlooking the fact that your dog is suffering from a condition that requires non-dietary treatment.
Once your veterinarian has said that your dog appears to be healthy except for intermittent GI signs, the next step is to determine if a change in diet will have the desired effect. My favorite “go to” food for cases like these is a hydrolyzed, hypoallergenic diet. Several manufacturers produce this type of food, but they are all quite similar:
- They are highly digestible.
- The primary protein source has been broken down into tiny fragments to prevent the dog’s immune system from recognizing them as potential allergens.
- Ingredients that are responsible for most adverse food reactions are not included. Routine and vigorous testing confirms that cross-contamination has not occurred during the manufacturing process.
- They contain supplements that promote a healthy GI tract.
- They are available by prescription only.
Feed one of these foods and nothing else but water for a month or two. If all your dog’s GI troubles disappear you can now safely say that “something” about your dog’s previous diet was to blame for his symptoms.
You now have a choice to make. You can try to find another food that your dog’s GI system will tolerate or continue to feed the hydrolyzed diet. Many owners balk at this second alternative due to expense (hydrolyzed diets are pricey) and ingredient lists that read like something out of a chemistry experiment. But when nothing else will control a dog’s symptoms, the long-term feeding of a hydrolyzed diet is a reasonable option. My boxer has eaten one exclusively for over four years due to severe inflammatory bowel disease and is thriving.
If you do want to try feeding your dog something different, I recommend either a novel protein diet (e.g., duck and potato or venison and pea) or a highly digestible diet. Some varieties are only available through veterinarians and benefit from tighter quality-control measures than do over-the-counter foods. Try a prescription food first and if it works, look for a similar over-the-counter product to switch to next. If at any time your dog’s clinical signs return, go back to the last food that held them at bay. Feed only that until your dog is healthy again before trying something different.
If your dog’s symptoms are more than just mild and intermittent or if a change in diet doesn’t help, make sure to talk to your veterinarian.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
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