Dog Conditions: Gastroenteritis is when ...

Isn't that a mouthful? Sometimes it seems the vets use these terms specifically to baffle us! In their defense, medical terms are actually highly descriptive once you figure out how to decipher them.

Dog Conditions: Gastroenteritis is when ...

If you own a dog, gastroenteritis is a term which you might run into often enough. 

You bring your dog into the veterinary clinic with diarrhea and vomiting. The chances that your vet will spring this word on you are pretty good. So what does it mean?

I don't know why—I blame my goofy bone—every time I come across this word I think of how a student who didn't do his homework would tackle explaining it: “Gastroenteritis is … when … something bad enters the digestive system.”

What grade do you think he'd deserve for that? Let's take a look.

Gastroenteritis refers to inflammation of the stomach and intestines.

The faithful suffix -itis stands for inflammation (e.g., arthritis, pancreatitis, gingivitis ...).

Gastroenteric refers to the stomach and intestines – gastrointestinal (GI). Sorry, nothing about actual entering.

However, the most common cause of gastroenteritis in dogs is a dietary indiscretion, which actually is something inappropriate entering the system. Ha! It can also be caused by drugs, poisoning or infection.

Considering all that, I think our unprepared student deserves a C for his efforts.

Because of its many different possible causes and how it can vary greatly in its severity, gastroenteritis is actually quite a broad term.

Something makes the GI tract angry, and it triggers a defensive mechanism – inflammation. Some of the many causes are
  • dietary indiscretion
  • an abrupt change in diet (you've heard about gradual switching, haven't you?)
  • poisoning
  • infections
  • food allergies
  • autoimmune disease
Quite a list, isn't it?

You are most likely to face the acute form of gastroenteritis, but it can also have a chronic form.

The symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite may wax and wane, but they linger over weeks or months.

When do you worry?

The rule of thumb is violence of the symptoms and how long they last.

Violent diarrhea and vomiting, the presence of blood, pain, fever, dehydration, lethargy, these are all signs that it's time to take action immediately. If the symptoms are relatively mild but chronic, you also want to pay attention and investigate the cause.

I was tempted to call for common sense, but is it still common sense when it's not so common?

I know people who run to the vet at the drop of a hat and I know people who shrug off quite violent lasting symptoms. Neither is a good idea, but when you're in doubt, err on the side of caution. It is better to rush to a vet with a simple garbage gut than to ignore a potentially life-threatening situation!

While acute symptoms are likely to get your attention, it is often easy to 'come to terms' with a chronic situation.

I know, I've been there. It is not that we didn't take Jasmine to vets. We did. But after countless fruitless visits, we accepted the lack of diagnosis. That was a wrong thing to do, and Jasmine paid for that. Chronic diarrhea is not normal! Where there is a symptom, there is a cause.

Also, beware of arbitrary symptom-based treatment

While there is a time and place for that approach, without a firm diagnosis, it can do more harm than good.
Moderate diarrhea that lasts a day or two is likely nothing to be overly concerned about. I do worry when diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting though. Dr. Beatty's article gives a good of example why it is a good idea to take this seriously.

Our J.D. is a young healthy dog who'll eat about anything that fits in his mouth. 

When he gets diarrhea, I have very clear suspicions. I put him on a 24 hour fast and all is well the next day. Sometimes he also does throw up. However, examining the vomit always makes it quite obvious why.

Jasmine is a different story. Even when her diarrhea isn't really bad, a 24 hour fast has never worked for her, and medical treatment has always turned out necessary.

Know your dog and know your symptoms!

Further reading:
Dog gastroenteritis
First Aid and Emergency Care: Diarrhea and Vomiting

Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Learn how to detect and interpret the signs of a potential problem.

Symptoms to Watch for In Your Dog

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog now available in paperback and Kindle. Each chapter includes notes on when it is an emergency.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is an award-winning guide to help you better understand what your dog is telling you about their health and how to best advocate for them. 

Learn how to see and how to think about changes in your dog’s appearance, habits, and behavior. Some signs that might not trigger your concern can be important indicators that your dog needs to see a veterinarian right away. Other symptoms, while hard to miss, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or limping, are easy to spot but can have a laundry list of potential causes, some of them serious or even life-threatening. 

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is a dog health advocacy guide 101. It covers a variety of common symptoms, including when each of them might be an emergency. 

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  1. Thanks for the plug Jana. As always a good article, very informative. I will try to remember to not speak so

  2. Awesome, funny and informative. SHe shoots, she scores. YAY!!!

  3. Dear Dr. Dan.

    You're more then welcome, loved your article. Don't worry too much about the vet speak, it is true but also made a fun intro :-)

  4. Dino, thank you, glad you liked it :-)

  5. ...and when your pet is a diabetic dog it's an emergency no matter what the cause. I suspect bunny poop is what cost my dog a $500 trip to the doggie ER.

  6. Great summary on the dreaded V/D. You broke it down so simply! I'm impressed!

  7. Dear Dr. Laci. I always feel humbled when a vet I respect likes my article.

    Introducing issues in a simple manner so it is easy for everybody to get a basic understanding is my goal. I am happy when I succeed! :-)

  8. My boxer has terrible gas all the time for the past few weeks, she Amelia like skunk!! Her diet has not changed in years. Her cyst like lumps do not stay long she licks them until they open and drain. Any suggestions on her fowl gas?

    1. Wait a minute, what cyst-like lumps? Together with the gas it sounds like a systemic issue. You do need to have this properly checked.


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