By Danielle Lafave, DVM

My dog has been vomiting occasionally this week. I can’t tell if he’s sick or if he’s reacting to all the food our baby has started tossing on the floor. How can I tell when stomach issues are worrisome enough to call my vet?

First: we’ve all been there, either finding cat vomit on the rug or having the dog wake us up at 2 a.m. begging to go outside. We all empathize with our pets: anyone who’s had food poisoning knows how miserable gastrointestinal distress can be. While most of the time the issue resolves itself promptly, without the need for medical intervention, occasionally a call to the vet is needed.

First, consider your pet’s health. If your animal is diabetic, has advanced kidney disease, has a history of pancreatitis, or has been diagnosed with cancer, call your vet if she vomits or has diarrhea. Yes, even if it was only once. I guarantee the vet or veterinary technicians will want to speak with you. Additionally, if you have young animals or elderly ones, they can become dehydrated easily, so don’t wait to call.

Next, examine the vomit or feces (disgusting but important). Clear or white foamy liquid in vomit, sometimes gelatinous, is typical. There may be food; note digested or undigested. An animal that has vomited more than once may bring up bile-tinged yellow or light brown fluid. These in and of themselves are not always urgent. Dark brown vomit that looks like coffee grounds could be indicative of GI bleeding, as could more than a few drops of fresh blood – these warrant an immediate evaluation. As for stool, mucous or fresh blood means it is large intestinal diarrhea. This is not always serious, as the large intestine has a terrific blood supply and bleeds easily if irritated; use your judgment and err on the side of caution. However, if there is a considerable amount of fresh blood, or if the stools are dark ink-black or dark green in color, the pet should be promptly examined. Look for foreign material in stool and vomitus. Pieces of fabric, stuffing, ribbon, other string-like items, or pieces of something firm and dense (like a corncob) should set off alarm bells.

Next step: inventory! Is anything missing? Socks, underwear, pieces of toys, half the ribbon from your child’s balloon….you get the idea. If you’re positive you left a dish towel out, but it’s not there now and your dog is sick, call your vet. Inventory also includes toxins: think medications (yours and theirs), cleaning products, and plants. The ASPCA has a terrific website to help evaluate this:
Abrupt introduction of new foods or treats (pet or human) can cause GI changes. Some foods can cause a pet’s stool to become lighter or darker, change the frequency of bowel movements, or cause the stool to become firmer or softer. Very soft stools or stools that are more malodorous than usual could indicate a problem. If you just opened a new bag of the same food and now your pet is sick, call the manufacturer.

Now let’s talk frequency. If your animal has just been ill once, and none of the issues raised above are concerning you, don’t panic. If she continues to vomit over the course of more than 6-8 hours, has diarrhea for more than 24 hours, or if she is becoming sick every hour or every few hours, she should be evaluated. Animals that are sick consistently but sporadically, such as the cat that vomits twice a week like clockwork, should also be evaluated, although their problem may be a less urgent one. However, if the pet appears uncomfortable, weak or lethargic, bring her in even if you think she’s only just gotten sick.

First aid is straightforward. Withhold food and water from vomiting animals for 8-12 hours. If the vomiting stops, reintroduce small amounts of water or Pedialyte (about 1 teaspoon per pound) every 3 or so hours. If that stays down, offer additional fluids and small amounts of boiled white rice mixed with plain boiled white-meat chicken or boiled lean hamburger every 3-4 hours. If no vomiting occurs, gradually increase the size of the meals and decrease the frequency over 2-3 days, and then slowly transition back to their regular diet over another 3-4 days if they are doing well. This same plan applies to diarrhea patients, except you should not withhold food and water to start. If your pet does not want to eat, or continues to have vomiting or diarrhea, call your veterinarian. Do not attempt to give over-the-counter medications without first consulting your veterinarian’s office.

Just remember: if you are unsure how serious of a situation you and your pet are facing, you can always call your veterinarian’s office and ask. We’re here to help! ND

Danielle Lafave, DVM, is an associate veterinarian at Deepwood Veterinary Clinic in Centreville, Va. She is a 2008 graduate of the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Contact Dr. Lafave at 703.631.9133.