By Diana Bocco
Dogs vomit for many reasons. Some of the reasons are serious, while some are nothing to worry about. Learning to tell the difference can be tricky, but it's essential to ensure you seek veterinary care as soon as it's needed.
What Vomiting Really Is (and Isn't)
One important thing to keep in mind is that vomiting and regurgitation are not the same thing.
“Vomiting is generally defined as the forceful ejection of stomach and upper intestinal contents,” explains Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, DVM. Dr. Hawkins is the director of Orange County (OC) Animal Care and of their new facility, which is currently under construction. She says that vomiting can contain yellow bile or food that has been partially digested, and usually smells sour.
Regurgitation, on the other hand, is a mild ejection of undigested food from the esophagus through the mouth.
“Regurgitation does not involve abdominal heaving, whereas vomiting does have an abdominal component,” Hawkins says. “Additionally, regurgitation tends to happen shortly after eating, whereas vomiting may occur hours after eating.”
Reasons Why Dogs Vomit
While dogs vomit for many reasons, stomach issues are perhaps one of the most common reasons for vomiting. According to Hawkins, these issues can include gastritis or an upset stomach from eating garbage or spoiled food, ingestion of toxic plants or grass, eating too fast, exercising after eating, inflammatory bowel disease, bloat, or obstruction from a foreign body.
Having an upset stomach in the car can also be a trigger for vomiting. “Motion sickness is not uncommon in dogs,” says Hawkins.
Vomiting can also be a sign that something more serious is going on. For example, vomiting may be a secondary reaction to a physiologic problem, such as kidney, liver, or pancreatic disease, according to Dr. Jeff Werber, an Emmy Award winning celebrity veterinarian who has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning and The Dr. Oz Show.
“Kidney failure causes in increase in ammonia, which can cause gastric irritation,” says Werber. “Inflammation of the organs connected to the stomach can also cause irritation to the stomach.”
According to Werber, in some cases, vomiting can also indicate a neurological issue, such as a middle ear problem, a brain tumor, or even meningitis. “There may also be psychological causes, such as extreme fear or anxiety, much like a person,” Werber says.
Granular vs. Chunky Vomiting
Both chunky and granular vomit are often (though not always) related to food or something your dog has ingested. Chunky vomit is vomit where you can still identify food parts—an indication that the food brought up has not been in the stomach very long. “The chunks tell us that the food has not had much time to digest,” Werber says. “It could indicate that the dog ate too quickly or ran around too soon after eating.”
Granular vomit, on the other hand, suggests that there has been digestion and the food sat in the stomach for a while before being vomited, explains Werber. “If your pet is retching and heaving, and the food is partially digested and somewhat liquid, there may be granules in the vomit, which is indicative of blood being present,” Hawkins explains. “The granules may look like old coffee grounds or there may be actual blood.”
How Liquid Vomit is Different
Foamy, slimy, or clear vomit is different from vomit that includes partially digested food. In some cases, liquid vomit that is yellow or clear is a sign of a completely different medical issue that has no connection whatsoever to the food being consumed.
In fact, the main difference between liquid and semi-solid vomit is that liquid vomit can often be a sign of a serious issue lurking underneath, while chunky or granular vomiting is more likely related to something that has been ingested.
“Often, fluid means we are looking at some other reason, such as kidney, liver, pancreas, or severe gastritis, where the cause is not food or an irritant,” Werber says. “It could also indicate esophogeal reflex—[which is] like our heartburn.”
One thing to keep in mind, says Hawkins, is that liquid coming out of your dog's mouth isn't always vomit. “Dogs may begin a distressed state with drooling, or experience clear liquid leaving the mouth,” Hawkins explains. “If it is followed by stomach contents, then it’s vomit.” If not, it isn't.
Dr. Katie Grzyb of One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, NY, describes an example of something that owners often mistake for vomiting: where a dog will cough so hard that they eliminate white foam from the mouth. This can be a symptom of kennel cough, she says.
When Should I Worry?
Some good news first: Vomiting is a very common occurrence for dogs and is most often caused by gastritis, or irritation of the stomach. “Gastritis is similar to an upset stomach in humans,” Hawkins says. “We may eat something that does not sit well in our stomachs or we may eat too much.”
In the case of dogs, that usually means the ingestion of something irritating, including grass, decomposed or rotten food, paper, and bones, according to Hawkins.
“Overall, gastritis is usually harmless and can be treated at home if there is a single episode,” says Hawkins. “But it’s important to act quickly if your dog is experiencing persistent or chronic vomiting,” she adds, in which case, you need to “get your dog to your veterinarian as soon as possible.”
As a general rule, your dog's behavior is the best indication of whether or not you should worry. If your dog is behaving normally except for the vomiting, you can probably wait a little longer and see what happens. “But if he is lethargic, has a tender abdomen, or refuses food, I’m more concerned and want to see the dog for an examination,” Werber says.
If there are no other symptoms, Werber recommends holding off on food and water for 12-24 hours. “That’s because after vomiting the stomach lining can be irritated and cause further vomiting of anything ingested, so I hold off to give the stomach and lining a rest,” Werber says.
After a period of this type of controlled fasting, Werber recommends slowly introducing soft, bland foods such as cooked chicken with rice and low fat or non-fat cottage cheese. “If that stays down, I would gradually get the dog back onto its regular diet,” Werber adds.
Hawkins agrees, adding that the rule of thumb is to visit your veterinarian as soon as possible if your dog also has diarrhea or his appearance and demeanor declines.
“If your dog is a puppy, geriatric, or has pre-existing medical problems, see your vet immediately when vomiting occurs,” Hawkins adds.
The biggest danger of not going to the vet right away, says Werber, is dehydration. “As the dog becomes dehydrated, essential functions start to break down. This can prevent normal processes and result in further irritation, gastric ulceration and malnutrition.”