Having a dog with GI upset on the trail is a sure-fire way to ruin a trip. Vomiting and diarrhea can get tricky because it is virtually impossible to have an eye on our dogs every waking second (they get into everything!), the list of causes for GI upset is endless, and the risk of running a dehydrated pup is a serious concern.
So, what can you do about GI upset on the trail or during travel? Over in our membership site this month I am teaching my members that first aid for GI symptoms involves two very simple goals. Which is kinda a relief because this can be a very a complicated condition. But let’s keep things simple to give us the best chance for success.
When your dog breaks with vomiting and diarrhea on the trail you want two goals to be top of mind. And that is, get it to stop as soon as possible, and keep them hydrated in the meantime. So, how do you go about this?
If you have a dog with a finicky stomach and you are heading out on a longer trip or a longer hike it is good to plan in advance. So, the first goal is getting the diarrhea or vomiting to stop as soon as possible… but let’s also briefly discuss how to avoid it from happening in the first place.
Be sure to consistently feed a complete and balanced dog food that you know your dog tolerates well. Do not change up dog foods right before a big trip, and if logistically possible be sure to bring enough of his food for the entirety of the trip. Making an abrupt change to the food is a very common cause of GI upset. And if possible, try to stick to his normal feeding schedule as much as possible. If a feeding schedule change is required try to slowly adapt him a couple weeks out – before you leave.
Now, if you find that you have done everything right, your dog is on a good, high quality food, you haven’t made any abrupt changes to his diet and he still breaks with vomiting and diarrhea. Well again, you gotta get it to stop as soon as possible.
To get it to stop as soon as possible the most obvious and practical advice I can give you is figure out the culprit and remove it. Whether he ate something he shouldn’t, we fed him table scraps, he is stressed, his feeding schedule has changed and its caused GI upset, he has intestinal parasites etc. The possibilities are endless. But take a thorough mental inventory or “history” of recent changes associated with the potential causes of his or her GI upset. This is the first step.
If the cause of the GI upset is a mystery, then there are medications you can carry in your first aid kit that can help. This is where having a complete traveling first aid kit is highly beneficial. You can carry dog specific anti diarrheals in your kit. Pro-pectalin is a great product that also has pro biotics in it. Depending on the cause of diarrhea it can help firm up stools within a couple of doses. However, I must caution you here because the efficacy of this medication will be highly variable depending on the cause of the diarrhea. Certain types of diarrhea need prescription medications to resolve. And another disclaimer that in the perfect world you would check with your vet prior to administering any medications, HOWEVER. The reason we are so passionate about this blog and educating you is because we know we do not always have the luxury of a vet nearby… let alone cell phone reception. Ultimately you should use your best judgement.
If we are dealing with nausea, once again…we want to get it to stop as soon as possible. The most beneficial item you can carry in your first aid kit for nausea in dogs is a prescription medication. This medication is called Cerenia and it is fantastic for belly upset. It is worthwhile having a discussion with your vet about this particular drug if you are going to be traveling to places where you will be far from veterinary care. If you are nervous asking your vet about prescription drugs for “just in case” type scenarios for travel or trips I wrote a blog about it. You can read that here.
Second best is Benadryl. Dramamine is another option; however, they tend to be equivalent in efficacy as they are in the same class of drugs. Because a lot of you carry Benadryl in your first aid kits anyways, we will recommend Benadryl here. Antihistamines can help with symptoms of nausea but just keep in mind that they may not be as effective as the prescription medication, Cerenia. This is especially true for overly anxious dogs. In most situations, however, it certainly will not hurt to administer Benadryl if you are in a situation where your dog is vomiting, and you are far from veterinary care and concerned with hydration. Again, in the perfect world it is best to check with your vet first.
So, we have listed some items to carry in your first aid kit for vomiting and diarrhea. Another way to treat vomiting and diarrhea from a first aid standpoint is with a bland diet, if you have access to it. Bland diet consists of plain boiled chicken and rice, very lean ground beef, cottage cheese, low fat yogurt etc. If you do not have access to a bland diet the complete and balanced diet your dog is already accustomed to is second best.
Now let’s discuss the final goal… which is arguably the most important goal. And that is keeping them hydrated until the symptoms resolve. Knowing how to perform a physical exam is vitally important to assess hydration, and having practiced your physical exams ahead of time will help you quickly establish what is normal and what is not for your dog. In the Wanderdog First Aid membership site we dive deep with a step by step video on how to perform a thorough physical exam on your own dog. Consider joining us in October if you would like a walk-through of the specifics and ins and outs of a canine exam.
A brief run through on questions to ask yourself while you are assessing your dog are: are his gums tacky or moist? is his heart rate, respiration, and temperature normal? (another plug to know what’s normal for your dog ahead of time!), is his abdomen soft on palpation? Does he have a skin tent? (again, highly subjective and variable depending on the dog- so knowing normal is imperative), and finally, do his pulses feel normal for him?
And one final note- take inventory on how much he is drinking. Is he drinking more? less? or anything at all? If he is not drinking it could be because he feels nauseated. This could turn into an emergency situation quickly if it persists and he becomes dehydrated.
So, be sure to keep track how much your dog is drinking, and if possible measure it so you can be certain he is meeting his needs. Just remember that his hydration needs will increase with vomiting and diarrhea, because he will be losing water through the bodily fluids.
Once you have assessed his current hydration status and how much he is drinking you need to make the call on whether you need to supplement his intake. If he is drinking adequate amounts, or more than usual and he is hydrated and has good energy levels it is probably sufficient to just continue to monitor him or her. Repeat your physical exam to assess hydration status every 4-6 hours depending on severity and symptoms.
If your pup is drinking smaller amounts than normal you can supplement his hydration by adding water or low sodium chicken broth (if available) to soften his kibble at meals. You can also encourage him to drink water by offering it to him more often, adding low sodium chicken broth to his water for flavor, or administering his water through an oral syringe.
If your pup is not drinking, then you must begin supplementing his hydration by administering water via oral syringe. This is where it is highly useful to have an oral syringe in your first aid kit. If you are having to force feed water, your dog is lethargic, dehydrated, or depressed- then it is probably best to start hiking out and/or seek veterinary care if you are traveling on the road. These cases can progress rapidly and quickly turn into an emergency. But in the meantime, while you are making that decision, administer 5ml/lb by mouth every 2-3 hours via syringe.
So, our goals with first aid for vomiting and diarrhea are very straight forward. Again, these are simple solutions for a complex problem that includes 1) get it to stop ASAP and 2) keep them hydrated. GI upset is probably one of the most common issues we see in veterinary medicine. It is complicated because the list of causes is virtually endless, and each dog is going to respond to treatment differently.
If you have a simple stomach bug that resolves on its own with some supportive, first aid care then you can cautiously continue on your hike or your trip. However, keep in mind that this condition can also progress rapidly or swing the other way.
This is why I am frequently discussing the importance of knowing your dog and knowing what is normal for him or her. If you can quickly make an accurate assessment of your dog with a physical exam you will have the confidence knowing you are making the right decisions to either treat conservatively or start hiking them out to find the nearest vet.
Just remember each dog and each episode of diarrhea can be different. So be aware and listen closely to what your dog is trying to tell you. Keep educating yourself and continue to practice knowing what’s normal for your own dog through frequent and consistent physical exams. Also, be sure to have a well-stocked first aid kit on camping trips, hikes, and during travel.
Remember: It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it, my friends. And that goes for both education, and equipment ;)
Until next time, I hope you get out and explore more confidently with your pup!
Libbie Fort, DVM