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Innocuous or Life-Threatening? How to Know the Difference

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

puppy vomiting

Story at-a-glance -

  • While it’s not uncommon for puppies to vomit once in a while or have a bout of diarrhea, it’s very important to carefully monitor the situation because very young animals get much sicker, much faster than older pets
  • If your puppy vomits only once or has just one or two episodes of watery stools back to back, but is otherwise happy and normal, it’s probably a one-and-done situation and no further action — beyond careful monitoring — is required
  • If your puppy is vomiting repeatedly or has more than two episodes of diarrhea in a row, it’s important to call your veterinarian or take your pup to an emergency animal clinic to diagnose the problem and provide medical intervention as required

If you’re currently a puppy parent or have experience in that area, you know it’s pretty common for them to have episodes of vomiting or diarrhea. It’s never an ideal situation, but the cause is often easily identified, and the problem disappears as quickly as it came on. However, because puppies are so vulnerable in terms of their health (especially their immature immune systems) and also their propensity to get into things they shouldn’t, it’s important to try to determine the cause of your pup’s vomiting or diarrhea.

It’s also critically important to keep track of any other symptoms you notice, and how many times he throws up or passes watery stools. If he vomits just once or has a single episode of diarrhea, has no other symptoms and returns to normal immediately, it’s safe to simply continue to watch him for any further signs of a problem until you’re sure he’s out of the woods.

However, if the vomiting or diarrhea continues (more than two episodes) over eight hours, get your puppy to your veterinarian or an emergency animal hospital right away. The danger of dehydration is much greater in puppies than it is in adult dogs, and your pup may need medical intervention, including intravenous (IV) fluids.

Why Puppies Vomit

Generally speaking, puppies throw up for one of just a few reasons. These include the presence of an irritant or obstruction in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract; stimulation of the chemoreceptor trigger zone (the “vomit center”) of the brain by an ingested toxin of some kind; or a problem with the vestibular system that affects the body’s sense of balance.

A GI irritant is by far the most common reason puppies throw up, because dogs — young ones in particular — tend to be indiscriminate eaters. A “dietary indiscretion” is often behind an episode of vomiting. Puppies explore the world with their mouths, and consequently, many things (the list is only limited by your imagination) can go into those mouths that shouldn’t.

With any luck, if your pup eats something she shouldn’t like a piece of a toy or a twig, she’ll throw it up quickly before it has a chance to travel deeper into her digestive system, where it can potentially cause more serious problems, like an obstruction that requires emergency surgery.

Indiscriminate eating can also trigger your pup’s vomit center if the ingested item introduced pathogenic bacteria or some other toxin into her system.

When to Take Action

More serious causes of vomiting in a puppy include parasitic and viral infections, including deadly parvovirus. Rarely, a congenital or infectious disease can cause organ dysfunction that results in vomiting and/or diarrhea. This is why it’s a good idea to follow the “one-and-done” rule. If puppy throws up once or has a single episode of diarrhea and then is fine, and even better, you know what caused it, you can exhale.

Rededicate yourself to ensuring there’s nothing dangerous in your pup’s environment, inside or out, that she can get hold of. For this and other reasons, I recommend crate training puppies so they can be secured in their own comfy little dens whenever their humans aren’t able to supervise their activity.

Any vomiting or diarrhea beyond one-and-done is cause for concern, especially if your puppy is doing both, or there are other signs of illness such as loss of appetite, lethargy or lack of interest in playing. This should trigger an immediate visit to your veterinarian or the nearest emergency animal clinic.

Puppies can crash very quickly, and treatable illnesses can become life-threatening. In addition, the sooner your pup is diagnosed and treated, the better her chances for a full recovery.

Puppy Diarrhea

Diarrhea is actually more common in puppies and dogs than vomiting, which is more of a feline specialty. It's important to keep a close eye on a puppy with diarrhea, as very young dogs can get much sicker much faster than an older animal.

Watch your pup carefully and if the problem doesn't resolve within one or two potty sessions, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian or visit an emergency animal clinic. As I discussed earlier, puppies can become dangerously dehydrated in 24 hours or less.

Common Causes of Diarrhea in Puppies

Stress — A puppy new to your family has undergone tremendous changes in a short period of time. He's been removed from his mother and littermates. He has been pulled from the only environment he's known to a new, unfamiliar one. There was probably some travel involved, if only a short drive in the car. The sights, sounds and smells in his world have changed overnight.

If your puppy's diarrhea is stress-related, it should resolve within a few days. Make sure to keep clean, fresh water available for him at all times, and if necessary, take him to the bowl and encourage him to drink. An integrative veterinarian can offer many suggestions for natural remedies that can help your pup through this initial adjustment period, if needed. Also make sure he has lots of opportunities to nap and plenty of quiet time.

Change in diet — Depending on where your puppy came from, you may or may not have information on her diet before you brought her home. Many new puppy parents either don't know what food their pet has been eating or simply decide to make a change. However, an abrupt change can bring on a bout of diarrhea.

Changes to her diet should be gradual — preferably over a seven- to 10-day period, and sometimes longer. It's always best to learn what your puppy has been eating up to the time you bring her home. That way you can blend a bit of the food she's used to with the food you want to transition her to, gradually decreasing and ultimately eliminating the old food over the course of one to two weeks.

Dietary indiscretion — As I discussed earlier, puppies are very curious about everything they encounter in their environment, and the way they explore new things is usually with their mouths. You might think “all” your pup is doing is chewing something he shouldn't, but whatever he's chewing will get swallowed if it isn't removed from his mouth.

If you suspect your pup has swallowed something he shouldn't, contact your veterinarian or an animal emergency clinic immediately.

Worms, other parasites, viral infections — Your puppy can be born with intestinal worms (e.g., hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms) or acquire them from her mother's milk. Fortunately, worm infestations are easily cured medically. Other types of pests that can cause diarrhea in your pup are protozoan parasites, the most common of which are coccidia and giardia.

It's important to get your pup to your veterinarian as soon as possible if you think parasites are causing her diarrhea, as medical management may be necessary to get rid of the problem. Unfortunately, the drugs used to treat these types of parasites have side effects and aren't always entirely effective, so I recommend finding an integrative veterinarian who can work with you to solve the problem with natural alternative remedies.

Diarrhea is one of the most common symptoms of several canine viral infections, the most serious of which is parvo. The virus invades the lining of the small intestine and causes foul-smelling, bloody diarrhea, as well as vomiting, lethargy, depression and severe dehydration.

Parvo is often fatal in infected puppies, so if yours is showing signs of a viral infection, time is of the essence. If you can't get in to see your veterinarian right away, I recommend you take your puppy to an emergency animal clinic.

Deciding on a Course of Action

Generally speaking, if your puppy suddenly develops watery stools — especially if they're streaked with blood — and has any other symptoms like vomiting, I recommend you seek immediate veterinary care. Very young puppies can become desperately ill in a matter of hours and it's better to be safe than sorry.

The key is to stay alert. Keep a close eye on your puppy and be disciplined about securing him in his crate or a puppy-proof area of your home when you can't watch him — even for a minute. This will reduce or eliminate the potential for your pup to swallow something he shouldn't. Likewise, changing his diet gradually should help to avoid GI upsets.

Taking sensible precautions with your new puppy can reduce or eliminate the potential for tummy upsets and diarrhea and put you in a better position to know immediately if you should seek veterinary care. The more you know about possible causes of your puppy's loose stools, the better prepared you'll be to react to a true emergency.

Home Care for Mild GI Upsets in Puppies

If your puppy has vomited or is having some mild diarrhea but is otherwise playful, energetic and weighs more than 5 pounds, fast her for 12 hours, preferably overnight. The GI tract can only rest, repair and restore itself when it's not working.

If she's better in the morning, give her some chicken or vegetable broth (no onion) and cooked sweet potato or 100 percent canned pumpkin. If the stool improves, but isn't fully back to normal, feed a second and third meal of cooked ground turkey meat (no bones) and sweet potato or canned pumpkin.

As she continues to improve, you can return to regular feedings. If the diarrhea continues another day or two, even if she seems fine, it's time to take her to the veterinarian, and bring a small stool sample with you. An effective herbal remedy for mild diarrhea in very young puppies:

  1. Bring a pint of water to boil
  2. Add 2 teaspoons of dried chamomile herb to the boiling water; steep for 10 minutes
  3. Pour the mixture through cheesecloth, then add 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt and 4 tablespoons slippery elm powder; stir well and let cool

Give your puppy 2 to 3 teaspoons of this mixture three times a day. Make sure she drinks plenty of water in between doses. You can also give her bone broth to help prevent dehydration and replenish vital nutrients. Older puppies eating solid food can have slippery elm mixed into their bland diet to help firm up the occasional loose stool.

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