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What Should I do if my Old Dog Throws Up [3 Tips from a Vet]

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elderly dog in bed sick

Vomiting is a symptom that always causes concern amongst owners, and for good reason. While vomiting can be a sign of a mild tummy upset, in older dogs it can often indicate more serious underlying disease. It’s therefore crucial to have a good idea of what may be causing the vomiting and when you need to seek veterinary advice.

Vomiting is defined as the forceful expulsion of stomach contents up the oesophagus and out through the mouth. The material expelled is referred to as vomitus and can be any one of, or a mixture of, partially digested food, stomach acid and bile.

It’s also important to make the distinction between vomiting and regurgitation since the two phenomena have very different causes and therefore very different treatments. In contrast to vomiting, regurgitation is more of a passive process and will often result in non-digested food coming back up. If you’re not sure take a video of your dog displaying what you think is vomiting and the vet can help make this distinction.

Has Your Dog Vomitted Multiple Times?

The frequency of vomiting is something owners should pay attention to. A one-off vomiting episode may not be anything to worry about if your elderly dog is well in himself; many dogs will vomit if they’ve eaten grass for example.

However, if your dog has made a habit of vomiting multiple times a day and otherwise seems lethargic or unwell in himself then veterinary attention may be required.

Most Common Reasons for an Old Dog Throwing up

old dog couching or throwing up

Here are some of the most common causes of vomiting in older dogs, and what can be done to help:

  • Gastrointestinal infection

Particularly likely if your elderly dog has a habit of eating things he shouldn’t, an infection of the gut will often lead to vomiting. An older dog’s immune system isn’t quite as strong as it used to be and as a result your dog may not be as resilient to eating rotten things as he once was as a puppy. It is important to be aware that there can be other underlying causes that leave your dog more susceptible to infections, so if this becomes a frequent occurrence it’s something that should be investigated.

Usually, a gut infection can be treated easily with anti-sickness medication and antibiotics. However, some dogs may need more intensive treatment involving hospitalization and intravenous fluid therapy.

  • Liver/Kidney disease

There are various potential causes of liver or kidney disease, from infection and inflammation to poisoning. Regardless of the underlying agent responsible, vomiting will often be a symptom shown, as toxins build up in the blood stream resulting in nausea. While it may be hard to differentiate from other causes of vomiting, a simple blood test can help identify how well certain organs are functioning, possibly pointing towards disease of the liver or kidneys. Treatment will vary on the cause, but the sooner disease is detected, the better the prognosis.

  • Pancreatitis

Affecting dogs of any age, pancreatitis will often result in vomiting, diarrhoea and general unwellness. Infection and inflammation of the pancreas results in nausea. The pancreas plays a key role in processing most of the fat your dog eats, so when it becomes overloaded often pancreatitis ensues. Diagnosis is via a blood test.

Treatment of anything but mild cases of pancreatitis often involves intensive hospitalisation, fluid therapy and antibiotics.

  • Neoplasia

Known to most as cancer, neoplasia in the guts will often lead to vomiting as any tumour that blocks the passage of food along the intestines only leaves one other direction for it to come back out! Neoplasia is often diagnosed through a combination of blood tests and ultrasound scans but isn’t always detectable. Samples of the tumour can often be taken by endoscope for analysis.

WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]

Treatment and prognosis will depend on the type of cancer present. While jumping to the conclusion that your dog may have intestinal cancer isn’t always the first choice, it is important to be aware of this as a potential reality as the sooner treatment is starter, the better the outcome.

  • Certain medications

Some medications may cause vomiting as a side effect, in these cases the vomiting is usually mild. Certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can uncommonly cause gut irritation and vomiting, these include drugs such as meloxicam used to treat pain and arthritis. Vomiting can also occur after a general anaesthetic as some of the drugs, particularly opioids, can cause nausea.

Vomiting in these cases is usually not much to worry about and will resolve within a short period of time. If the vomiting doesn’t stop after 24 hours then visit your local vet.

  • Intestinal parasites

Parasitic disease can affect dogs when they are older just as much as when they’re young, especially if they are known for eating things they shouldn’t. An overload of worms for example can result in damage to the intestinal lining and release of toxins, resulting in nausea. Dogs with a high worm burden will often also have diarrhoea.

Treatment of parasitic disease is done through anti-worming medication. It’s important to keep your dog up to date with a regular worming regime, even when he is elderly.

  • Car sickness

Many dogs hate travelling and being in the car can make them feel very nauseous. If you notice a clear relationship between your dog travelling and them vomiting, then it’s likely that the cause is motion sickness.

There are various medications that your vet can prescribe to help with motion sickness but the best cure of all is training. Get your dog used to being in the car, even if you don’t drive anywhere. Let them know that it’s a safe environment to be in and slowly build up journey time from there, starting with just 5-minute drives.

  • Foreign body ingestion

If your dog has suddenly started violently vomiting, seemingly out of nowhere, then one potential concern is if they have ingested a foreign object that has become trapped within the gastrointestinal system. If your old dog has a tendency to chew up toys and eat pieces he shouldn’t then there is a possibility that those part may have become stuck (referred to as a foreign body). This will result in blockage of the intestines, therefore only leaving one direction for food to come out – the mouth.

If you suspect your dog has a foreign body then it is classed as an emergency, as if not quickly addressed parts of the gut can die off due to a lack of blood supply. Your vet will likely want to perform X-rays to check for a blockage and may even need to operate on your dog to remove the foreign object.

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3 Tips from the Vet To Help Your Dog At Home

Depending on the situation and the cause, there are some things that an owner can do to help alleviate their dog’s symptoms, including:

  1. Withhold food for 24 hours. This can help clear out your dog’s intestinal system and prevents overloading the stomach with food which may lead to vomiting.
  2. Provide small amounts of water during this period.
  3. Slowly introduce bland foods, such as boiled chicken, rice and scrambled egg, back into your dog’s diet. Keep offering bland foods to your dog for several days, if needed. This will help calm their upset stomachs.

If the above does the trick then your dog may have had a simple case of gastrointestinal upset.

When Does my Dog Need to See the Vet?

If your dog’s vomiting doesn’t improve with the steps above or recurs shortly afterward then they should see the vet. Likewise, if the vomiting has been going on for weeks or months and gradually increasing in frequency then they will require veterinary attention. If your dog is otherwise unwell in himself then he should be examined.

Your vet will perform a full clinical exam, looking for signs of pain and checking your dog’s temperature. From this point they may trial symptomatic treatment or decide to perform further investigations. These may include blood tests to check various organs function, protein levels and white blood cell counts, or X-rays to look for any internal blockage.

Vomiting can indicate anything from a mild stomach upset to more severe, even life-threatening, disease. For this reason, you can never be too safe; take your dog to the vets at the first signs of vomiting.

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  • Alex Crow is an RCVS accredited Veterinary surgeon with special interests in neurology and soft tissue surgery. Dr Crow is currently practicing at Buttercross Veterinary Center (Practice Profile). He earned his degree in veterinary medicine from the Royal Veterinary College (one of the top 3 vet schools in the world).

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Disclaimer: This website's content is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action. Read More.

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