dog throwing up undigested food

For many dogs, an episode of vomiting here or there is a part of life. It’s just something our canine companions do every once in a while, and the occasional retching is not typically something that pet parents should be concerned about, unpleasant as it may be.

But what happens when your dog is vomiting frequently? Why is your dog throwing up undigested food?

The truth is that a dog might vomit for a variety of reasons, some not so serious, and some that are worth getting checked out. You also might be surprised to learn that vomiting and regurgitation and actually two different things, even though the words are often used synonymously.

Let’s take a closer look at regurgitation and vomiting in dogs so that you can understand why this might be happening to your beloved pet and what you can do to stop it.

Why Is My Dog Throwing Up Undigested Food?

To learn why your dog is throwing up undigested food, let’s first look at regurgitation in dogs. Technically, regurgitation is different than vomiting. Regurgitation is the return of food into the oral cavity after it has been swallowed — not after it has been digested.

Regurgitation occurs without the abdominal muscles pushing stomach contents up into the esophagus and into the mouth. The food didn’t start getting digested, so the stomach doesn’t really have to do any “work” to expel it. There’s no abdominal heaving involved the way there would be with a case of vomiting.

Overall, regurgitating is a kind of passive experience for dogs compared to vomiting, and can occur without them controlling it in any way. Most of the time, regurgitation happens without any warning ahead of time. The contents themselves will include undigested food, saliva, and perhaps some water.

So, why does regurgitation happen at all? There a few typical causes, including:

  • Eating too quickly
  • Eating too much at one time (overeating)
  • Anxiety, stress, or excess excitement
  • A dilated esophagus, known medically as megaesophagus, a condition in which the esophagus expands and loses the ability to move food into the stomach properly

It also seems that a few dog breeds in particular regurgitate food more often than others. These breeds include the German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Great Dane, Irish setter, miniature schnauzer, and the shar-pei.

Vomiting in Dogs

Australian shepherd playing in field

Compared to regurgitation, vomiting in dogs is a much more physical and active process. When dogs vomit, the abdominal muscles contract in order to eject food from the stomach or upper intestine.

You’ll have more warning that something is happening than you will with a case of regurgitation. When your pup vomits, he or she will probably pace or whine for a few moments, then start retching or gagging before actually vomiting.

The contents that you’ll see after your dog vomits include partially digested food and some stomach fluid — the fluid will probably be clear if it came from the stomach, or green or yellow if it came from the small intestine. That green or yellow fluid is bile.

There are many reasons why dogs vomit. Possible causes of vomiting include:

  • Ingesting foreign objects such as rocks, dirt, clothing, hair, plastic items, tennis balls, etc.
  • Ingesting too much fatty, rich, or buttery food
  • Eating garbage
  • Contracting intestinal parasites like roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, or tapeworms
  • Developing a disease such as diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, or cancer
  • Contracting viral infections like parvovirus, distemper, or influenza
  • Ingesting a toxic agent like a pesticide product, antifreeze, human medications, or cleaning supplies
  • Experiencing anxiety, stress, or a high level of excitement
  • Experiencing motion sickness, perhaps when riding in the car

Of all of these possible scenarios, the most common cause for vomiting in dogs is simple stomach irritation, known as gastritis in the veterinary community. Just like us, our dogs can eat something that doesn’t agree with them too well, whether it’s a type of food or a foreign body like garbage, grass, or bones.

So, how do you tell when your dog’s vomiting is a one-time occurrence that isn’t a big deal and when it’s something more serious, perhaps with a dangerous underlying cause?

When Dog Parents Should Be Worried

If your dog regurgitates food or vomits every once in a while, it’s probably not a serious health issue. Even so, keep an eye on your dog after he or she experiences the episode, because continued vomiting or other unusual behaviors indicates a problem.

There are a few things to stay on the lookout for when it comes to your dog’s vomiting. They include frequent or chronic vomiting, unusual behaviors, and other medical symptoms that accompany the vomiting.

Frequent Vomiting

If your pooch won’t stop vomiting, it’s a serious cause for concern. Chronic vomiting could be caused by a number of ailments, from kidney failure and Addison’s disease to stomach ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease.

Is your dog’s vomit bloody? If you see something that looks like coffee grounds in your dog’s vomit, that means they are throwing up dried blood. This could be caused by ulcers, a tear in the digestive tract, a sharp foreign object being ingested, and much more.

Unusual Behavior

Keep an eye on your fur child’s behavior after a bout of vomiting, because it’s one of the best indicators of whether or not your dog might be suffering from a serious condition. Unusual behaviors might include things like:

  • Loss of appetite or refusal to eat
  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Abdominal pain (sensitive to touch around the stomach)
  • Weight loss

Accompanying Symptoms

In addition to the behavioral signs listed above, other visible symptoms that accompany vomiting can tell you whether or not you should be worried. These include:

It’s also important to note that coughing can sometimes be mistaken for vomiting, especially if white foam comes out of the mouth. Coughing and vomiting aren’t the same thing, though. Most often, kennel cough is to blame when white foam is seen.

There is also the possibility that your dog is retching and gagging without actually producing anything. Various ailments could cause this behavior, including a serious condition called bloat. Bloat usually occurs in larger dogs and involves a twisting of the stomach, blocking the escape of stomach contents and causing the stomach to expand, or “bloat.” If your dog is exhibiting unproductive retching, call your vet immediately.

What to Do If Your Dog Is Vomiting

Dog throwing up undigested food: Small puppy looks at camera

If your dog vomits once and doesn’t exhibit any accompanying symptoms or other unusual behavior, they’ll probably return to normal in a short time. Veterinarians recommend withholding food and water for 12 to 24 hours, which gives the stomach a chance to rest and the stomach lining time to repair itself.

After the 12- to 24-hour period, a bland diet can be given, consisting of plain white rice or fully-cooked plain chicken. If your dog doesn’t throw up the bland diet, he or she is probably fine and can return to their normal food.

If, however, your dog’s vomiting is happening frequently or if there are other symptoms accompanying it, it’s time to call the vet’s office. Remember: Serious conditions could be the root cause of your dog’s vomiting, including ingestion of foreign bodies, an intestinal blockage, or a dangerous disease.

At the vet’s office, a diagnosis might be achieved through a physical exam, X-ray or ultrasound scans, blood tests, fecal samples, and other techniques. Your dog might require IV fluids to prevent dehydration, which is one of the biggest dangers of prolonged or chronic vomiting. From there, your veterinarian will treat the underlying cause of your dog’s vomiting so that your pup can return to full health.

Why Is My Dog Throwing Up Undigested Food? The Bottom Line

Here’s the rule of thumb to remember when it comes to vomiting in dogs: If your dog throws up every once in a while — whether it’s regurgitation or actual vomiting — and doesn’t exhibit any other symptoms, he or she is probably okay. They might benefit from a short fasting period and then a bland diet before returning to their normal dog food.

If your dog’s vomiting seems more serious than that, or if it worries you in any way, play it safe and call the vet’s office. There’s no sense in putting your dog’s health at risk.

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