After practicing as a veterinarian for more than 25 years and being chief of staff at Animal House of Chicago, I have treated my fair share of cases of elderly dogs vomiting. The cause of an old dog throwing up has ranged from something simple, like the dog eating too many dog treats, to more complex issues, like liver or kidney disease.
Senior dogs, like puppies, are not as resilient and may become significantly and more rapidly affected by vomiting compared with adult dogs. Therefore, it’s important to address the situation with your veterinarian if your senior dog is throwing up, and find the root issue.
Is an Old Dog Throwing Up an Emergency?
Vomiting is the forceful expulsion of stomach contents through the mouth. The difference between vomiting and regurgitation is that in regurgitation, the food expelled comes from the mouth or esophagus versus the stomach. Vomiting involves the forceful contraction of stomach muscles; regurgitation does not. Both vomiting and regurgitation can occur right after eating or drinking, or up to several hours later. If your dog is bright and alert, and only vomits once, it may not be necessary to call your veterinarian. Many dogs will vomit after eating grass, for instance.
Vomiting can be more dangerous in senior dogs because they may already have other health issues, as well as the fact that vomiting can be severely dehydrating.
If your older dog is vomiting a lot, or just more than once, or appears sick, call your veterinarian. Your vet will likely ask you a series of questions to determine how severe the vomiting is. It will be helpful for your veterinarian to know when your elderly dog started vomiting, how many times your dog has vomited, what the vomit looks like (for example, if your senior dog is throwing up undigested food, or if your dog is throwing up yellow bile) and if your dog appears uncomfortable. Call your veterinarian immediately if:
- There is blood in the vomit.
- Your dog acts like they want to vomit, but nothing is expelled.
- Your dog appears bloated or has a swollen abdomen.
- You suspect your dog may have eaten something toxic or poisonous.
- Your dog has a fever or is depressed.
- Your dog’s gums are pale or yellow.
- Your dog appears to be in pain.
- Your dog also has diarrhea.
Never give your dog any medications, including over-the-counter human medications, unless advised to do so by your veterinarian.
Why Is My Old Dog Throwing Up
Conditions in older dogs that may cause vomiting include:
- Bacterial infection of the gastrointestinal tract
- Diet-related causes (diet change, food intolerance, ingestion of garbage)
- Foreign body (i.e., toys, bones, etc.) in the gastrointestinal tract
- Intestinal parasites
- Acute kidney disease/failure
- Acute liver disease/failure
- Gallbladder inflammation
- Post-operative nausea
- Ingestion of toxic substances
- Viral infections
- Certain medications or anesthetic agents
- Car sickness
- Infected uterus (in non-spayed females)
Determining Why an Old Dog Is Throwing Up
Looking at the list above, it’s clear that many things can be behind a senior dog throwing up. It is important to determine the cause so the appropriate treatment can be given. Your veterinarian will combine information from you, a physical exam and possibly laboratory and other diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the vomiting.
Be prepared to tell you vet how suddenly the symptoms appeared—such as the contraction of abdominal muscles, as well as the actual vomiting. This is a good clue to what the cause of the vomiting may be. If the symptoms appeared suddenly, the condition is called “acute." If the symptoms continue over a long period of time (like if your old dog is vomiting a lot over a period of weeks), this is called chronic vomiting.
Your veterinarian may recommend the following:
- Fecal Test
- Blood Test
What to Do When an Old Dog Is Throwing Up
Treatment for a dog with an upset stomach varies depending on the scenario. In many cases of vomiting in dogs, your vet may advise you to:
- Withhold food for at least 24 hours, while providing small amounts of water frequently.
- Then, offer a bland diet, such as boiled chicken and rice, in small amounts.
- If the vomiting does not recur, slowly switch your dog back to their normal diet, or a special diet as recommended by your vet, over the course of several days.
For some cases of vomiting, it may be necessary to modify the diet permanently. Special or prescription dog food may need to be given as a way to avoid certain ingredients, add fiber to the diet, decrease the fat intake or increase digestibility.
If intestinal worms are present:
- Give your dog a de-wormer. Your vet can prescribe the appropriate de-wormer. Few de-wormers kill every kind of intestinal worm, so it’s very important that the appropriate medication be selected. In most cases, it’s necessary to repeat the de-worming one or more times over several weeks or months.
- Remove the worm eggs from the environment. The fecal flotation test looks for worm eggs, and if no eggs are being produced, the test could be (“false”) negative even though adult worms or larvae could be present. For this reason, in some cases, even if the fecal flotation test is negative, a de-wormer may still be prescribed.
If dehydration is present:
- Your vet may provide fluids either via intravenous or subcutaneous route. Oral fluids are often inadequate during vomiting or diarrhea because they may be vomited up or pass through the animal too quickly to be sufficiently absorbed.
If the vomiting is caused by bacteria:
- Your vet may prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics may also be given if the stomach or intestines have been damaged (e.g., blood in the stool or vomit would indicate an injured intestine or stomach) and there is a chance that the injury could allow bacteria from the digestive tract into the bloodstream.
In some cases of vomiting, anti-emetics (drugs to help control vomiting), like Cerenia, or other medications may be given. It is always important to have an accurate diagnosis before the use of any of these drugs or medications, and it’s best to closely follow your veterinarian’s recommendations regarding appropriate treatment.
While some diseases that cause vomiting in senior dogs, such kidney or liver disease, may not be curable and require continuous medication and treatment, you and your veterinarian can work together to maintain the highest quality of life for your senior dog, for the greatest amount of time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Why is my old dog vomiting yellow bile?
A: Your old dog may be vomiting yellow material first thing in the morning if they go too long between meals. Try changing mealtime so that you are feeding your dog later in the evening, or give them a high protein snack (such as unseasoned chicken breast, liver treats or deli turkey) right before bed. If this doesn't help, call your vet.
Q: Why is my old dog vomiting white foam?
A: White foam usually occurs when a dog is vomiting on an empty stomach. It could be due to stomach irritation or an obstruction, or could it be due to kennel cough. If happens more than 1-2 times in a 24-hour period, or if happens regularly, call your vet.
Q: What should I feed my senior dog if they are throwing up?
A: If your old dog vomits 1-2 times in a 24-hour period, fast your dog for the remainder of the day. You can offer small amounts of water or ice chips to keep your dog hydrated. If the vomiting stops, then you can feed your senior dog small amounts of a bland food the next day—either a prescription digestive food from your vet or boiled chicken breast and white rice with NO seasoning. If your dog does well with that (no vomiting), continue feeding the bland food for 3-5 days, and then slowly transition back to their regular food by mixing the regular food with the bland diet for 2-3 days.
If your senior dog vomits more than 1-2 times in a 24-hour period, or your dog starts vomiting after you feed your dog, or if your dog has diarrhea or is acting sick in any other way, call your vet immediately and schedule an appointment ASAP to get your dog seen by a vet.
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Additional expert input provided by Sarah J. Wooten, DVM, CVJ.