It is very worrying when our pets are poorly, as it can be hard to work out what’s wrong and what we should do to help them. An occasional vomiting episode is unlikely to be anything to worry about if your dog is otherwise well. However, if symptoms of an upset stomach persist, this could be a sign of an underlying health issue.
This article will give you information about why your dog is throwing up, but remember, if you have concerns about your dog you should always contact your veterinarian for advice.
What is vomiting?
Vomiting describes the forceful ejection of stomach contents back up the esophagus (food pipe) and out through the mouth. It is usually accompanied by nausea, which can be seen as lip licking, dribbling, and loss of appetite, but also other signs such as diarrhea.
Vomiting can be caused by a variety of things but is usually due to irritation of the stomach lining or an obstruction stopping the passage of food and water through the gut.
Vomiting is different to regurgitation. This is a passive process whereby undigested food just comes back up with no abdominal force. On the other hand, vomiting requires abdominal contractions, and the food is brought back up partially digested with bile.
What might cause my dog to vomit?
There are multiple reasons why a dog might vomit. This is a list of some of the more common reasons that we see in the clinic:
‘Dietary indiscretion’ is a fancy way of saying he’s been eating all sorts of things he shouldn’t do! This includes raiding the garbage bin, eating poop, or gorging on discarded food items he finds on the ground. These could cause stomach irritation or carry bacteria that can lead to vomiting.
Foreign body (obstruction)
Some dogs will go a step further and eat indigestible items, like bedding, toys, or even dangerous items like kebab skewers. Some food materials like animal bones, corn on the cob, or avocado and peach pits also can’t be broken down by digestion and could become lodged in the gut. Surgery may be required to remove a foreign body.
Parvovirus can cause vomiting and severe diarrhea. This can be seen at any age but is most common in young puppies that haven’t yet had their vaccinations. Dogs with this virus can become very unwell, needing intensive hospitalization.
Other preventable diseases can cause vomiting too, such as hepatitis and leptospirosis. Make sure your dog’s inoculations are kept up to date to prevent him from catching these viruses.
Eating items that are toxic can cause symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea. Toxins that cause vomiting can range widely from chocolate to daffodil bulbs to medication like ibuprofen. Vomiting is a non-specific sign and just means your dog’s body is trying to reject the toxic, irritant substance.
You should seek veterinary attention if your dog has eaten something potentially toxic. Even if he has vomited, he could still have absorbed some of the poison and may need further treatment before any other symptoms develop.
High numbers of parasites could cause a stomach upset, with young dogs and puppies being known to even vomit up worms on occasion. You should ensure your dog has regular preventative worming treatment to stop heavy parasite burdens from occurring.
A serious condition whereby the pancreas (a small organ that helps with fat digestion) becomes inflamed. This can sometimes follow an episode of dietary indiscretion or if the dog has recently eaten something very fatty (like bacon grease or meat rinds). Dogs with pancreatitis can have vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, abdominal pain, and lethargy.
Treatment usually involves hospitalization for fluids via a drip, pain relief, and anti-nausea medication.
Metabolic conditions (such as liver and kidney disease)
Other types of organ malfunction can also cause digestive upset. If your dog has issues with his kidney or liver function this can cause him to become nauseous and throw up. Other symptoms may include changes in thirst, weight changes, and lethargy—in severe cases, jaundice may be seen (yellowing of the gums).
Gastric dilatation-volvulus (bloating)
Bloating of the stomach, which then twists on itself, can cause a life-threatening condition called gastric dilatation-volvulus. Dogs with this may make repeated attempts to vomit but not bring anything up. If your dog is doing this or has a bloated painful abdomen, call a veterinarian immediately.
Some types of cancer could cause vomiting. This could be because the cancer is affecting the stomach lining creating irritation or ulceration, or it could be because of a tumor that has caused a blockage somewhere in the intestines (guts).
Some dogs can be sensitive to certain foods that can irritate their digestive tract. These could be common ingredients such as chicken or beef that they may have developed a sensitivity towards. These dogs need to be managed on hypoallergenic or sensitive stomach diets.
In more severe cases inflammatory bowel conditions can be seen, which may require medication to manage as well as a diet change.
Dogs (and puppies in particular!) can suffer from motion sickness caused by traveling in the car. Many dogs will grow out of this as they get older, but if you are struggling with your car journeys then speak to your veterinarian.
One-off occurrence vs long-term condition?
Sometimes the frequency of vomiting gives us a clue as to the underlying cause or the severity of the situation. Some dogs may just be sick once and are then completely back to normal—these dogs are very unlikely to require treatment.
Other dogs may be sick multiple times in a row or may start vomiting intermittently but regularly. These dogs are more likely to need veterinary attention and treatment.
Examples of one-off vomiting episodes include:
Examples of longer-term vomiting:
Different types of vomit and what they mean
Vomit can vary a lot in appearance, with different types potentially indicating different underlying issues.
This could be due to vomiting shortly after eating. It could also indicate regurgitation, which is a passive process where food comes back up again without forceful ejection from the stomach. Regurgitation can be seen in conditions such as megaoesophagus (a condition affecting the gullet or food pipe).
Red streaks or pink-tinged
This could be a sign of fresh blood, usually from marked inflammation or from forceful vomiting. If you see this then you should take your dog to a veterinarian.
Digested blood can look like coffee grounds or black/brown granules. This could be seen if your dog has a condition like gastric ulceration. This would be a clear sign that your dog needs to be examined by a veterinarian.
Bile from the stomach can appear as yellow fluid, which might happen if your dog vomits on an empty stomach. This may be more common overnight or in the early hours of the morning when your dog hasn’t eaten for a while.
A non-specific sign of stomach irritation, and not meaningful in itself. However, it can also be seen in cases of gastric dilation volvulus or bloat, where a dog is retching and only able to bring up small amounts of foamy material. Some dogs with kennel cough may also bring up white froth when coughing excessively.
This may occur when dogs are vomiting up water and unable to hold fluids down. Sometimes it may seem slimy or mucus-like too, this often occurs when a dog has been drooling a lot, which can occur when he feels nauseous.
When is it normal for my dog to be throwing up?
Vomiting is never considered to be ‘normal’ in any species, and dogs are no different. Vomiting usually means something has upset your dog’s stomach or has made him feel nauseous. However, most dogs will have the odd episode of mild vomiting and seem none the worse for wear for it, just as we occasionally get poorly too.
Some dogs will eat grass and may vomit afterwards. It’s not clear whether they eat grass as if to try and make themselves vomit, or whether it’s an unfortunate side effect of eating grass. The occasional bit of grass eating, and associated vomiting is unlikely to be a big cause for concern but speak to your vet if it is happening regularly.
When do I need to take my dog to a veterinarian?
In many cases, vomiting is mild and self-resolving, particularly if your dog has just eaten a little bit of something that disagrees with him. Some dogs will also vomit on occasion after eating grass, and then go on to tuck into their next meal as usual!
However, in some cases, vomiting can be a sign of a more serious problem. The following symptoms would all be a cause for concern, and a sign you should get your dog checked over as soon as possible by a veterinarian:
Vomiting several times,
Dehydration (tenting of the skin when you pinch it, sunken eyes, and pale gums),
Blood in the vomit (this may be bright red or could just be pink or brown streaks or dots),
Abdominal pain or bloating,
Weakness or collapse,
You should also take your dog to your veterinary clinic promptly if you know they have eaten something potentially toxic, as rapid treatment will give a more successful outcome in poisoning cases.
How your vet is likely to assess/treat your dog
Your veterinarian will examine your dog, checking their temperature and feeling their abdomen. They will be looking for signs of dehydration too. If your dog has fairly mild symptoms they could be managed as an out-patient, perhaps with medication to help with the vomiting and nausea, and a bland diet for a few days.
If your pet is dehydrated or showing other concerning symptoms, then they may be hospitalized for intravenous fluids (fluid is given via a drip) and diagnostic tests. Blood tests will look at your dog’s organ function, markers of anemia and infection, as well as more specific tests for conditions like pancreatitis.
X-rays and ultrasound might be used to look for physical obstructions in your dog’s stomach or intestines (guts), as well as other abnormalities like gas build-up, or suspicious masses/tumors.
Treatment will depend on what is found, and your veterinarian will talk you through everything as they go along.
How to treat vomiting in dogs?
If your dog has mild symptoms and has only vomited once or twice, you may decide just to monitor them at home to begin with.
You can help your dog by fasting them for a short period (up to 12 hours) before feeding them small amounts of very bland/easy-to-digest food such as cooked skinless chicken, cooked white fish, and boiled white rice.
Only give a couple of teaspoons of food every few hours initially, building things up gradually if they hold it down. Keep them on bland food for a few days before gradually reintroducing their old diet.
Fresh water and rest
Make sure your dog always has free access to fresh drinking water, to avoid dehydration. Never withhold water. Keep your dog rested, but they are unlikely to want to do much exercise or running about when suffering from a bad tummy.
If your dog develops any new or worrying symptoms, or the vomiting continues despite the bland food, then you should ring your veterinarian for an appointment.
Take them to a veterinarian
If your dog continues to be unwell you should seek veterinary assistance, particularly if he is becoming lethargic or seems in pain.
Administer medications as prescribed
If you do need to take your dog to the veterinarian for treatment, then make sure you follow their advice and administer any medications that they prescribe. This will give your dog the best chance of improvement.
How to prevent your dog from throwing up
To avoid future upset stomachs, keep any possible irritants away from your dog’s reach such as toxic food items, plants, or medications. Keep your dog’s inoculations up to date to protect them against infectious illness and try and stick to their usual dog food where possible, avoiding things like fatty table scraps.
You should also make sure that your dog only plays with dog-safe toys to avoid the risk of them destroying and swallowing anything inappropriate. Some dogs will accidentally swallow small toys or pieces of chewed-up bedding which can cause a blockage.
You will never be able to stop your dog from having occasional episodes of vomiting, but you can help to make it less likely.
If your dog has vomited multiple times or has any other concerning symptoms, then you should get them checked over by your veterinarian. There are many causes of vomiting and sometimes it can be hard to work this out by yourself, so seek professional advice if you are worried.
It’s a good idea to have pet insurance in place, ideally from a young age, as episodes of vomiting are very common in dogs! Insurance can give you some peace of mind when it comes to paying for treatment.
Above all, prompt treatment is most likely to lead to a successful outcome, so make sure your dog gets seen sooner rather than later if he’s just not right.
Rebecca is a companion animal vet who has always had a passion for writing and client communication. Since her graduation from the Royal Veterinary College in 2009 she has gained a wealth of experience in first opinion small animal practice, in both clinical and managerial roles. She currently works in the South West and deals with a variety of routine and emergency appointments, but particularly enjoys medicine cases. Outside of work and writing, she enjoys spending time with her family, including her bouncy flat coated retriever George!