What to Feed a Dog with a Sensitive Stomach?
If you’ve ever seen your dog scavenge something revolting, some unknown scrap of food off the ground on your daily walk, another animal’s poop *gag*, or bury a bone in the yard only to dig it up again a few days later for a snack, you’d be forgiven for thinking they had guts of steel and won’t ever experience an upset or sensitive stomach.
However, despite having stomach juices that rival battery acid and a penchant for eating things off the ground, they can in fact suffer from upset and sensitive stomachs with gastrointestinal issues being primary reasons for vet visits1,2.
A sensitive stomach is a nonmedical term that describes a digestive system that is easily upset. Signs and symptoms of a sensitive stomach include vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, gas, and nausea.
Some of these symptoms are more obvious than others, for example if your dog vomits on the floor inside the house, then there is a pretty good chance you’re going to know about it. But if they are experiencing nausea or gas build up that is making them uncomfortable, this may manifest as something less obvious like fatigue or restlessness.
If your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms for the first time, it’s important to monitor them and seek veterinary intervention as soon as required. Vomiting for example, could simply be a one-off after eating something that doesn’t agree with them, however if this persists it could be something more serious. Monitor puppies especially closely in the case of vomiting or persistent watery diarrhoea as they are more prone to dehydration than adult dogs3.
Blood is also a serious one that needs immediate attention. If you see blood in your dog’s vomit or stool, get them to a vet immediately for assessment. Take a quick photo to show your vet to help them during the diagnostic process. Blood in the stool may be bright red as we would ordinarily recognise it (indicating that the source of the bleeding is close to the rectum) or much darker, almost black (indicating that a source of bleeding may be elsewhere in the digestive system)4.
If you’re interested in learning more about how your dog’s stool can give you an insight into their health, read our article “What’s your dog’s poo telling you?” here.
If your vet determines there is nothing serious as the cause of the symptoms, your dog will likely be given some medication to help them feel better and a bland diet for a few days while they recover.
A bland diet is usually homemade consisting of chicken and rice. This (or similar) is the food of choice to feed a dog with an upset tummy because it’s simple, easy to digest, and good for short term use during recovery. Leading holistic veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker recommends a low fat meat like turkey with mashed pumpkin or sweet potato. These mashed vegetable-sources of carbohydrate provide more nutrition than rice and don’t cause the steep and fast spike in blood sugar associated which a starchy food like white rice5.
Adding a probiotic supplement to any gut recovery plan is a good idea. These good bacteria help recovery from digestive upset and stimulate the immune system, as well as assisting with the absorption of nutrients from food6.
Also keep in mind that once symptoms resolve, it’s important to transition back to a complete and balanced diet as these hypoallergenic diets do not have the nutrition in them that dogs need7.
If your dog’s upset tummy persists, then there may be an underlying health issue that warrants further investigation or there may be something in their environment that isn’t agreeing with them, and this could include what they are eating8.
More serious conditions that can present in similar ways as a sensitive stomach include infection with bacteria, worms, or parasites, as well as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, colitis, gastroenteritis, and pancreatitis9.
Just as in the case of acute symptoms, your vet is the best person to assess your dog if an upset tummy persists. They can run any required tests and help you to understand what may be causing these symptoms your dog is experiencing. Depending on the cause of your dog’s symptoms, the treatment will vary.
It’s important to get to the bottom of what’s causing symptoms because your dog’s gut is responsible for digesting their food so the nutrition within the food can be properly absorbed. The inability to properly digest food will impact the nutrition in the food that’s available to be absorbed and utilised by the body and can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health consequences down the track if left unmanaged.
If your vet has ruled out anything nasty being at the root of ongoing sensitivities and yet, your dog is still experiencing symptoms, their food may not be agreeing with them. This is a good time to consult a professional canine nutritionist for support on determining if there is a food sensitivity at play.
Food sensitivities are increasingly common in our dogs. Sensitivities can result from a great many things, including a very common health condition called leaky gut syndrome which you can read more about here. They can also arise from feeding a diet which doesn’t agree with the dog or consistently feeding an ingredient that your dog may be intolerant to10.
But what do I feed them?
Food is such a joy for our dogs and something we want them to be able to enjoy, not to be associated with pain and discomfort. With the end goal being to move to the best food for dog’s with sensitive stomachs, we need to look at some of things you can consider:
The ingredients list – make sure you keep an eye on the ingredients list of all foods (treats included) that you buy for your pet. Make sure they are free of any known allergens for your pet and make sure the ingredients are clearly labelled. Pet foods with labels such as “Meats (Chicken, Lamb and/or Sheep, Beef and/or Pork)” are not helpful for dogs with sensitivities because you don’t ever really know what’s in the food so it’s impossible to determine and avoid ingredients that your dog may be reacting to.
What the food is made from – the quality of any dog food can only ever be as good as the quality of the ingredients the food is made from. Starting with high-quality raw materials is important for sensitive dogs especially if their sensitivities are driven by, or worsened by, exposure to chemicals and toxins in their environment. Ensuring the food they are eating, is free from (or low in) contaminants will help their overall chemical burden. There are vast quality differences between raw materials used to manufacture pet food and unfortunately, the standard in place for pet food manufacturing in Australia is not enforced at a government level, so the more transparent a company is with their ingredients, the more you can rely on the quality of the food overall 1.
Where the ingredients come from – an extension of ingredient quality, ingredients from countries without the farming and processing standards that are in place in countries like Australia, inherently carry more risk. Some of the largest global recalls of pet food have been due to toxic contamination of ingredients coming from overseas. Australian ingredients processed in for-human-consumption facilities are far less likely to carry the risk profile of many ingredients cheaply sourced overseas 1.
How the food is manufactured – in addition to the quality of the ingredients, the extent to which these ingredients are processed will also impact the way it is tolerated by the dog consuming it. Sometimes a dog may appear to be intolerant or allergic to a certain type of food or ingredient, when in fact, they are simply allergic to the way it has been processed 11.
Subjecting an ingredient to high heat processing changes the ingredient and, in many cases, increases its allergenic potential. A more in-depth look into this topic can be found here.
When it comes to selecting food that has less risk of setting off a sensitive tummy, the more you know the better. And if any pet food label makes you question what is actually in the food, how it’s made, or where it comes from, best to skip that one and move onto another more transparent option for your dog.
If you’re doing all of the right things in this regard and still find your dog is exhibiting symptoms, you can always look at an elimination diet as the next step. You may choose to follow this process yourself, or engage the help of a professional canine nutritionist to assist you. You can read more about this process here.
Slow and steady
When trying new foods, it’s important to transition correctly and this is especially the case for sensitive dogs. Transitioning slowly over a minimum of 2 weeks (potentially longer for extra sensitive dogs). Start by adding a small amount of new food to the current food, then every few days, include more of the new and less of the old food. Keep going until the new diet is being fed exclusively and monitor. Adding a probiotic supplement aids this process 12.
Is raw food suitable for sensitive stomachs?
In many cases, raw food is a great solution to symptoms of sensitivity. Some of the qualities of raw food diets that suit sensitive dogs include:
Highly digestible – an easily digestible diet is exactly that, easy for the system to break down and absorb the nutrition. This type of diet is not only better for healing because digesting it isn’t a source of stress to the system, but also because the more nutrition the system has access to, the more the body can heal and recover. Studies have proven that raw meat diets are more digestible than cooked food and highly processed pet food products 13.
Rich in high quality protein – not only is meat more digestible than plant sources of protein, but meat is far higher in protein than grains. Meat is also loaded with other important nutrients that our dogs need. Protein is important for immune system function and the immune system plays an important role in managing sensitivities. Protein is also required for healing and repair which is needed in all dogs with a history of, or currently experience sensitivities. The combination of raw meat being higher in protein and this protein being more available to the system results in more nutrients for your dog to heal 1.
Moderate amount of high-quality fats – dietary fat, in appropriate levels and in combination with high quality protein is also important for healing. Beyond this, good fats are required for the function of every cell in the body and an important dietary component of maintaining good health in our dogs. The type of fat in our dog’s diet will also have an overall positive or negative impact on their health. Bad fats drive inflammation, which in the medium-to-long term is not good for our dog’s health and will contribute to health issues including ongoing sensitivities. On the other hand, including anti-inflammatory high-quality fats from raw meat and fish will contribute to an overall anti-inflammatory role played by the diet, helping with healing and healthy functioning of the body 14.
Despite many processed pet foods advertising they contain healthy fats such as omega-3’s, the problem with this is that the fat in the food is heated at high temperatures as part of its processing. This changes the molecular structure of the fat and essentially turns good fats bad; the exact opposite of what this food is advertised to be 15.
Ingredients come from for-human-consumption facilities – ingredient quality matters for all dogs, but it is especially important to consider with dogs who are sensitive. In Australia for example, food is either classed as fit for human consumption, or fit for animal consumption. The subtleties of the differences here are explained by our friend and pet nutritionist Clare Kearney and can be found here. For-human-consumption produce, in a nutshell, needs to meet higher standards than pet-consumption produce. These standards make for a healthier end product and a far better option for dogs with sensitivities who may not be able to tolerate lower quality food 16.
Free from unnecessary fillers, binders, and pro-inflammatory ingredients – think of wheat, corn, soy, white rice, potato starch and tapioca starch to name but a few cheap starch ingredients that are unfortunately ubiquitous in many commercial pet foods. These starchy, carbohydrate, and grain ingredients are partly there to help bind the product so it can maintain its shape once manufactured. But they are also included because they are cheap and result in a more profitable product for the manufacturer. These ingredients drive inflammation which is the opposite of what dogs with sensitivities need from their diet 17.
If you’d like to learn more about processed carbohydrates in pet food, read more here.
When is raw food unsuitable?
While raw food is a great option for the vast majority of dogs with a history of sensitive stomachs, there are a few situations where it may not be suitable.
If a dog is taking medication to suppress their immune system as part of a treatment program for a health condition, then many commercial dogs foods may not be the best choice for them. In this situation we would often recommend working with a professional canine nutritionist to find a diet that best supports their treatment and their nutritional needs, in a format that works for them.
Some dogs develop sensitive tummies into their senior years. While this may be a sign of leaky gut which has slowly developing over time and something that can be managed while continuing to enjoy a healthy raw food diet, some people find a lightly cooked, fresh, balanced diet is a better option for their senior pups.
While most dogs love the taste of a balanced raw food diet, the longer a dog has been eating processed foods, the less likely they may be to transition to a healthier option. We have a list of tips and tricks to try with these dogs which you can find here.
Ultimately, the most appropriate food for a dog who is experiencing symptoms of sensitivity will depend on the individual. There isn’t a one-size-fits all for every dog but hopefully, with a bit of knowledge, time, patience, and the assistance of professionals where required, you can find the most suitable diet for your sensitive sausage.
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1. Brady, Dr. C. (2020). Feeding Dogs: Dry or Raw? The Science Behind The Debate. p27. Farrow Road Publishing.
2. Rakha, G.M., Abdl-Haleem, M.M., Farghali, H.A., et al. (2015). Prevalence of common canine digestive problems compared with other health problems in teaching veterinary hospital, faculty of veterinary medicine, cairo university, egypt. Veterinary World, 8(3): p. 403-411.
4. What's your dog’s poo telling you? - Guides | Big Dog Pet Foods
13. Algya KM, Cross TL, Leuck KN, Kastner ME, Baba T, Lye L, de Godoy MRC, Swanson KS. Apparent total-tract macronutrient digestibility, serum chemistry, urinalysis, and fecal characteristics, metabolites and microbiota of adult dogs fed extruded, mildly cooked, and raw diets1. J Anim Sci. 2018 Sep 7;96(9):3670-3683. doi: 10.1093/jas/sky235. PMID: 29893876; PMCID: PMC6127788.
14. Verpaalen VD, Baltzer WI, Smith-Ostrin S, Warnock JJ, Stang B, Ruaux CG. Assessment of the effects of diet and physical rehabilitation on radiographic findings and markers of synovial inflammation in dogs following tibial plateau leveling osteotomy. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2018 Mar 15;252(6):701-709. doi: 10.2460/javma.252.6.701. PMID: 29504855.