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 senior dogs for episodes of 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 regurgitation and vomiting 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 old 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 the vomiting started, how many times your dog has vomited, what the vomit looks like (for example, if your senior dog is throwing up 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.
Causes of an Old Dog Throwing Up
Conditions in senior dogs that may cause vomiting include:
- Bacterial infection of the gastrointestinal tract
- Diet-related causes (diet change, food intolerance, ingestion of garbage)
- Foreign bodies (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.
How suddenly the symptoms appeared—such as the contraction of abdominal muscles, as well as the actual vomiting—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), the vomiting is called “chronic.”
In senior dogs where the vomiting can be associated with other diseases, your veterinarian will often recommend a variety of lab tests. A fecal flotation is a test to check for parasites such as intestinal worms or protozoal parasites like Giardia. If a bacterial infection is suspected, a fecal culture and sensitivity are performed. In cases of certain viral diseases, such as parvovirus, other tests on the feces may aid in the diagnosis.
If the dog is showing signs of illness, a complete blood count and chemistry panel are often recommended. Special blood tests may also be conducted if certain diseases are suspected. Radiographs (X-rays) are appropriate if a tumor, foreign body or anatomical problem is suspected.
Other diagnostic imaging such as a barium study or ultrasound may also be helpful. Examinations using an endoscope to evaluate the stomach or intestinal tract may also be indicated.
For some diseases, the only way to make an accurate diagnosis is to obtain a biopsy and have it examined microscopically.
What to Do When an Old Dog Is Throwing Up
Because there are so many causes of vomiting, treatment varies. In many cases of vomiting in dogs, food is withheld for at least 24 hours while small amounts of water are provided frequently. Then, a bland diet, such as boiled chicken and rice, is offered in small amounts. If the vomiting does not recur, the dog is slowly switched back to their normal diet or a special diet 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, the appropriate de-wormer will be prescribed. Few de-wormers kill every kind of intestinal worm, so it is very important that the appropriate medication be selected. In most cases, it is necessary to repeat the de-worming one or more times over several weeks or months. It is also important to 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, it is usually necessary and beneficial to give the animal 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.
Antibiotics are given if the vomiting is caused by bacteria. They 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, 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.