Dogs, as a whole, have incredible digestive systems. Many dogs will pick up all sorts of disgusting snacks on a walk, things that would cause you and I all sorts of issues but don't seem to bother our dogs at all. Their digestive system is extremely robust and amazingly versatile, being able to cope well with all sorts of food groups and enabling dogs to thrive on huge range of diets from 100% meat to 100% vegetarian.
Unfortunately though, as we all know, even these heavyweights of the digestive world have their weaknesses. Infections, stress, too much food or picking up something particularly revolting can all send the digestive system into disarray. Even more significant these days though is the ever-increasing number of food intolerances and allergies dogs are being diagnosed with. Whatever the cause of the problem, the symptoms are often very similar and are easy to spot.
Spotting digestive problems
We're going to have to talk about the symptoms of digestive upsets a little, so if you have a sensitive constitution, please brace yourself...
Poo. Your dog's poo is the best window into how things are going inside so it's always good to take a regular look. A healthy dog should have firm, but not hard stools and should have no difficulty in passing them. They should not smell too much and should be an earthy brown colour. If any of these indicators are off, it would usually mean that something isn't quite right. The most common sign of an upset is what nutritionists tend to call 'loose motions'. This could refer to anything from a slightly soft stool to the raving squits. It means that the dog's body has detected something bad has been eaten and reacts by rushing it through the system. Alternatively, the body might try to eject the problem food in the other direction through vomiting. At the other end of the scale, constipation can result if a food remains too long in the colon where water is reabsorbed into the body, making the stool hard and difficult to pass.
In general, short, very occasional bouts of diarrhoea, vomiting and constipation are part and parcel of having a dog and should not cause alarm. If however the symptoms become more severe or if they continue for more than a few days, you will need to take action. Likewise, if you see mucous in the stool (a common sign of Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or blood (usually a result of colitis) you know that it's time to make some changes.
Dealing with digestive problems
Now that we have established that your dog has a minor digestive upset, what can we do to help?
Naturally, diet has a huge effect on digestive health. If there is a problem, it is likely that the current diet is playing at least some part, so a change would be a good place to start. Try to look for a hypo-allergenic food to begin with. These foods are free from the most common problematic ingredients and so are unlikely to cause any upsets. It is also wise to choose a food with a different meat from the current food to rule out any meat intolerance. Our Dog Food Directory can help you to find the right food - simply select 'hypoallergenic' under 'Food properties' and any ingredients you would like to avoid in the 'Avoid ingredients' section.
For very mild problems - occasional runny motions or wind for example, you can perform a normal diet change - take a look at our dog food changing guide for more information. However, if the problems are regular or more pronounced then it is usually best to rest the digestive system with a 24 hour fast followed by a very simple chicken and well-cooked brown rice diet. If your dog has problems with chicken and/or rice, a good alternative would be tuna or egg and very well cooked porridge oats (cooked in water). Small amounts of chicken and rice (or tuna/egg/oats) can be fed several times a day for a few days, over which time any digestive upsets should subside. Once your dog's motions are looking healthy, you can start to gradually introduce the new food into the chicken/rice diet over a period of 7-10 days. If at any stage you are at all unsure, or if your dog's motions do not improve on the chicken/rice diet, please consult your vet.
In many cases, how much you feed is just as important as what you feed. Even on the best diets, if the volume of food is so large that it overwhelms the system, the body might just rush it through in the form of diarrhoea. Since diarrhoea often causes weight loss, a vicious circle can develop where the owner tries to get weight back onto the dog by feeding even more which just makes the digestive problems and the weight loss worse. To avoid any difficulties, always start by feeding the amount recommended on the bag.
As I mentioned above, stress can also have huge effects on the digestive system. New puppies, for example, often experience a week or two of digestive upsets following their move to the new home. These problems will usually subside by themselves but changing the food too early can often unsettle an already fragile system so we always recommend allowing new dogs 2-3 weeks to settle before trying any dietary changes - see our puppy feeding guide for more details.
9 out of 10 minor digestive problems will clear up after a simple, slow dietary change, provided you can find the right food. If you have any problems along the way, please be sure to consult your vet and for any questions or doubts, please always feel free to contact us.