Digestive upsets are a common summer issue for pets

Dogs are prone to digestive upsets caused by scavenging

Pete Wedderburn - Animal DoctorThe Argus

In the recent weeks of warm, sunny weather, the media has been effective at getting the message out about protecting pets from excessive heat. Radio talk shows, daytime television programmes and newspapers have all shared the need to prevent heat stroke in dogs.

There have even been radio adverts warning dog owners not to leave their pets unattended in cars, even if the car is in the shade and the windows are open (thank you, Skoda). The warnings  have been clearly transmitted, and nobody now  could plead ignorance if they were found to be neglecting their dog by letting them overheat like this.

This year, warm sunshine is continuing beyond the usual pre-Leaving exam period so it's worth going over another, less well-known hazard to pets in warm weather. The main victims are dogs. I'm talking about the increased incidence of gastroenteritis in warm weather.

Dogs are, by nature, scavengers. Their ancestors were wild dogs who survived by eating carrion: the remnants of prey that had been hunted and killed by other predators. So dogs have an instinctive urge to pick up decaying matter in their mouths, scoffing it as rapidly as possible. If dogs had a motto, it might be "eat first and ask questions after" (in contrast, cats are fussy eaters who might say "ask questions first, and eat later")

The canine digestive system is geared to cope with this type of indiscriminate scavenging: the stomach is highly acidic, which does a good job of killing off many bacteria. They also have an effective regurgitation response, so that if something irritates the stomach unduly, they are quick to vomit, emptying the stomach of anything toxic. Dogs are better at doing this than most species.

Despite these first lines of defence, dogs do sometimes eat decaying organic matter that causes serious illness. And in warm weather, bacteria and yeasts proliferate far more quickly than in cooler weather: the warmth is like putting the bugs into an incubator, speeding up their growth and multiplication. So vets across Ireland have been seeing an increased incidence of dogs suffering from severe gastroenteritis.

In mild cases, a simple approach to treatment is possible. if a dog vomits once, then often simple fasting for 12 to 24 hours is sufficient to solve the problem. And feeding bland food (such as cooked chicken and boiled white rice) for the first 24 hours after this makes sense too. As long as a dog remains bright and active, with no other signs of illness, this home-based treatment may be enough.

If the signs are more serious, then a visit to the vet is needed. For example, if a dog vomits repeatedly, and if it shows no sign of stopping. Or iif vomiting is accompanied by loose faeces (diarrhoea). Or if, at any time, blood is seen either in the vomit or in the faeces. Or if the dog is drinking more water than normal (this can be a warning sign of an intestinal obstruction). And the final sign of danger to look out for is a dog that is dull and depressed, with no interest in food. In all of these cases, the help of a vet is needed. And the sooner they get to the vet, the better.

The vet will check the pet over to make sure that there are no indications for radical interventions such as surgery, and then medical care will often be given to help the problem to settle down. This may be as simple as oral rehydrating fluids and bland food that can be given at home, or as complicated as hospitalization for intravenous fluids given by a drip, along with antibiotics if bacterial infections are suspected, and medication to ease the irritation and reactivity of the stomach and intestines.

Blood samples will often be needed to assess the degree of dehydration, and to ensure that there is no evidence of other underlying illnesses, such as liver or kidney disease.

One big difference between humans and animals is that if we get dehydrated, we can make the choice to drink fluids, even if we don't particularly feel like doing so. Our rational brain can say to us " we will feel better if we get rehydrated". Dogs cannot make that connection, which is why they need intravenous fluids more often than humans. One recent innovation has been a bottled water for dogs: this sounds wacky at first, but there's a logic to the concept. The water is flavoured, so dogs are more likely to drink it, and it's balanced with electrolytes, so that it will help to effectively rehydrate the animal. There's a strong argument that the product should be kept on the shelves of homes with dogs that are prone to gastrointestinal upsets. If it is offered to dogs with mild gastrointestinal upsets, visits to the vet for intravenous fluids perhaps could be reduced.

It also makes sense to try to stop dogs from scoffing anything that's likely to upset your stomach. If you are out walking your dog, and you see them stop at something foul-looking, don't ignore it. Try to stop them from eating it, if you possibly can.

One effective route is to teach dogs the so-called "LEAVE IT" command: when you say these words, your dog will turn away from whatever it's doing, and come to you instead. There are Youtube videos that show you how to teach your dog to LEAVE IT.

As in many other situations, prevention is always the preferable way to go.