What To Do If Your Dog Is Vomiting Or Regurgitating
May 10th, 2020
Table of Contents
Is your dog’s recent vomiting episode putting you in a cold sweat? I don’t blame you. Like many dog owners, I was unsure what to do when Yuna did her first vommie.
“Should I be concerned? Should I go to the vet?”
If you’re asking all these questions, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll take a close look at your dog’s vomiting episodes, and judge what you should do and whether you need to see the vet. As we’ll see, it depends a lot on the color, frequency, and content of the expelled material.
First And Foremost, Vomiting Or Regurgitating? Causes And Characteristics Of Each
The very first distinction you’ll have to make is whether your dog is vomiting or regurgitating.
Many dog owners make the mistake of thinking their dog is vomiting, when really they’re just regurgitating their last meal.
It’s important to make this distinction, because the underlying conditions associated with each are very different.
Vomiting is when food is expelled from the stomach or small intestine.
Because the food had already reached the digestive system, vomiting usually occurs a while after your dog eats.
During a vomiting episode, you’ll likely hear your dog retching first. They’ll usually be hunched over, as if trying to force something out–for this reason, it’s described as more of an active process (forceful ejection).
This is very important to note. Vomiting will always involve some sort of abdominal heaving.
Bile based vomiting (bile and foam) can also occur on an empty stomach–this is sometimes called “empty tummy syndrome.” You’ll usually see this vomiting first thing in the morning or the middle of the night.
Causes of Vomiting
As we’ve established, vomiting usually highlights an issue with your dog’s digestive tract. However, because nausea often triggers vomiting as well, the problem may also be elsewhere.
Some of the most common causes of vomiting include:
- Stomach ulcers, inflammation, or obstruction
- Intestinal parasites (i.e. tapeworms, hookworms, ringworms)
- Liver disease or inflammation
- Gallbladder obstruction or inflammation
- Kidney disease, stones, or infection
- Acute or chronic pancreatitis
- Stomach bloat
- Ingestion of toxic foods (i.e. grapes, chocolate)
- Ingestion of toxins (i.e. antifreeze, yard product, certain flowers (5))
- Sudden diet change
- Canine parvovirus
- Addison’s disease
- Adverse reaction to medications
- Heat stroke
- Motion sickness
Ugh… that was a scary list. Hopefully you’re still with us!
Many blood tests and X-rays can help diagnose these causes, and find any irregularities or obstructions in your dog’s digestive organs.
Regurgitation, on the other hand, is when food is expelled from the esophagus.
Because the food never reaches the stomach or intestines, regurgitation usually happens shortly after your dog finishes a meal, though not always.
A regurgitation episode doesn’t involve retching like vomiting does. In many cases, it’s described as quietly occurring: your dog just lowers their head and the expelled material comes out without warning.
Unlike vomiting, regurgitation involves no abdominal heaving. It’s more of a burp, as this article suggests. For this reason, regurgitation is often labelled a passive process.
Dog regurge will usually contain lots of undigested food, covered in saliva and sometimes mucus.
Causes of Regurgitation
Regurgitation usually points to a problem with the esophagus, the track that connects the mouth to the stomach.
However, in many one-off episodes, it’s due to eating too quickly. Here’s a more complete list of possible causes:
A Third Possibility: Expectorating
There actually is a third “type” of vomiting–expectorating.
The key properties of expectoration is that there’s always a cough involved before your dog expels a blob of mucus.
With expectoration, only mucus is produced. There are no food pieces mixed in with the expelled content.
Causes of Expectoration
In most cases, expectoration is caused by canine influenza (kennel cough). It is highly contagious, and easily spread from dog to dog in boarding facilities and dog parks.
Some more serious causes of expectoration include:
- Allergic reactions (i.e. dust mites, cigarette smoke, pollen)
Make Observations About The Expelled Material
So we’ve covered the basic properties of vomiting vs. regurgitation (vs. expectoration). We know the distinction on paper, as well as the possible health conditions associated with each.
But practically, looking at your dog’s vomit, it can still be hard to distinguish between the two.
That’s why the first, and most important thing you should do if your dog is vomiting or regurgitating is to simply observe their episodes closely.
Specifically, ask yourself the following questions (and we’ll have Yuna’s own vomiting and regurgitation episodes as examples).
Does The Expelled Material Contain Undigested Food?
Many times, if your dog is regurgitating, the food in the expelled content will look exactly as it was when you placed it in your dog’s bowl, but covered with extra saliva and mucus.
If your dog is vomiting, on the other hand, you may not be able to distinguish much of the original food at all, since it’s probably been partially digested already.
Throughout Yuna’s vomiting episodes, the expelled material just looked like mush. In some cases, it was impossible to make out any solid piece out of the material.
One of her episodes contained small, undigested pieces of chicken jerky treats, but was still largely mixed in with brown-colored mush.
On the other hand, during her one regurgitation episode, the content looked exactly like the kibble she had that morning. Same shape and all, just coated with a layer of mucus and saliva.
Since it only happened once, our vet advised us that she probably just ate too quickly. Indeed, Yuna tends to inhale her food…
What Was Your Dog Doing Before The Episode Occurred?
An easy way to distinguish the two is to examine your dog right before the episode.
If your dog stops, bends over and makes audible retching noises before expelling, this is certainly vomiting.
Once you’ve heard that noise once, you’ll never unhear it. It’s the type of horrible noise that takes you out of whatever you’re doing.
Conversely, if your dog doesn’t make any noise, but rather just stops, bows his head and unloads a pile of expulsion without prior warning, this is certainly regurgitation.
Without warning is the key–even your dog may be taken by surprise.
Yuna’s vomiting episodes happened in the middle of the night. The sound of her retching immediately tore me out of my sleep.
Her regurgitation episodes happened right after we climbed a few flights of stairs on our usual walk to work.
She was her usual ecstatic self climbing the stairs, but her face suddenly turned sour when we reached the top and she let out the regurge right there. No retching, no warning.
Shoutout to the nearby store employees for helping me clean it all up!
What Is Your Pet Doing During The Episode And After?
If your dog is vomiting, they’ll often keep their head down and could continue to let out retching sounds. Perhaps another episode is on the way.
Sometimes, they’ll lick their lips a lot or drool excessively.
If your dog is regurgitating, usually you won’t see these symptoms.
In contrast, perhaps your dog may even give the regurge a sniff and try to gobble it up again! Disgusting as that is, this is actually okay for dogs (the article actually states dogs will sometimes happily eat vomit too, but it depends on what it contains)!
Yuna’s vomiting episodes came in several waves, and she paced around the room before lowering her head and letting out retching sounds. She also licked her lips a lot, due to nausea.
After Yuna’s regurgitation episode, she appeared a little taken aback at first. But then she gave the regurge a thorough sniffing and a few licks.
Honestly, she was prepared to eat the lot, but I cleaned it up first.
So You've Made The Distinction. Now What?
As we’ve harped on in this article, vomiting is usually indicative of an issue in your dog’s stomach or intestine.
This means that if you’ve identified that your dog is vomiting, you should recall what they ate in recent memory.
Apart from just regular meals, what table scraps and special treats did your dog get? Have there been any missing items that your dog may have ingested? Has your dog flipped through the trash recently?
If you’ve identified that your dog is regurgitating, recall whether your dog has any difficulty eating recently, or any sudden appetite loss.
Could they have gotten injured recently? Have they been coughing or swallowing more than usual (or having difficulty swallowing)?
In either case, knowing which one your dog is experiencing can help your vet more quickly diagnose underlying issues.
Additionally, it can really help your vet if you provide a video of your dog’s episode, as well as a picture of the expelled contents.
Regurgitation: How Concerned Should I Be?
If your dog just regurgitated, should you see a vet?
Timing & Frequency
The timing and frequency of episodes play a huge role.
If your dog has regurgitated just once, and this is the first episode in recent memory, most vets agree that this is a one-time thing with little cause for concern.
The general recommendation is that if your dog regurgitates more than once within a week, you should go see a vet.
What To Do If Your Dog Is Regurgitating
Now that you’re sure your dog is regurgitating rather than vomiting, hopefully it’s just because they ate their meal too quickly.
To that end, here are some tips to get your dog to slow down during mealtime:
- Use a slow feeder bowl. Yuna uses these Outward Hound Slo-Feeders–they really help us lengthen her mealtime.
- For a temporary hack, place some tennis balls, large stones or soup cans (depending on your dog’s size) inside your dog’s bowl, so they have to eat around it.
- Use a Kong for meals! Not only will this help feed your dog slowly, but they also gain mental stimulation from interacting with the Kong toy.
- It’s possible to teach your dog to chew food thoroughly, rather than just swallow food whole. This involves feeding raw meats with the bone in, and holding one side of the bone while your dog works the other end.
If you’ve tried these things and regurgitation persists, then it’s likely due to a problem with the esophagus. Go see a vet immediately.
Vomiting: How Concerned Should I Be?
Vomiting is more delicate because there are many more varieties of vomit, all of which carry different implications.
Again, we stress that the most helpful thing you can do if your dog is vomiting is to carefully observe their episodes. Jot down some notes and take pictures and videos. It can really help a vet achieve an accurate diagnosis.
Timing & Frequency
Let’s still talk about timing and frequency first, because it’s still a key factor.
A similar rule applies here with regurgitation: if your dog vomits more than once in a week, and hasn’t had any vomiting episodes for a while, see a vet no matter how “normal” the contents look.
Also, it’s good to note down the exact date and time of each episode.
What Color Is It?
The content of your dog’s vomit is also very revealing.
Look closely at what your dog coughs up. One major thing you should note about it is the color.
Yellow or Green
Bile is a digestive fluid secreted by the liver, that helps with digestion. It is yellow or green in color.
If your dog’s vomit has this tint, (perhaps with minor traces of a slight orange or dark yellow), this indicates the presence of bile (21).
This just means that whatever your dog vomited was just food that they didn’t finish digesting.
A yellow or green color is considered the most “normal” of vomit. It usually isn’t something too serious, unless it’s been happening frequently.
Brown or Black
When the color turns brown or black in color, these can be more serious. The color usually indicates the presence of digested blood.
Dark brown or black vomit can be due to a number of conditions, such as stomach ulcers, internal bleeding, or pancreatitis, which Yuna had herself in late November 2018 through 2019.
The best way I can describe this color is a coffee bean-like color, or darker. We’d recommend contacting a vet immediately.
What Else Is Mixed In?
Do you notice any food pieces mixed in with the vomit? If so, how digested are they? If they are only partially digested and you can still make out their shape, this means they haven’t stayed in the stomach for too long.
One mild possibility is that your dog is eating too quickly, or exercised too vigorously after a meal.
Do you notice any blood in the vomit? Red blood mixed in with the vomit can be a serious issue, one that you should bring up at the vet (22).
What Other Symptoms Do You Notice?
Dehydration is a common danger you must watch out for when your dog is vomiting.
Is your dog feeling lethargic, or does he have a dry nose or dry gums? See a vet if your pup shows any of these symptoms, or is not even able to keep water down.
Does your dog also have diarrhea? Are they eating normally? Do they seem to reject treats they’re usually enthusiastic about?
Whenever you notice multiple symptoms in addition to vomiting, maintain a list of ones you notice and see a vet immediately.
Other Factors To Consider
Some other factors that can cause vomiting episodes:
- Any new medications your dog has taken on recently?
- Any sudden changes to your dog’s environment that could cause additional stress (i.e. moving to a new home, getting another pet)?
What To Do If Your Dog Is Vomiting
Based on your observations of your dog’s vomit, there are different ways we recommend responding.
Mild - Yellow/Green Vomit, Single Episode
If your dog is otherwise healthy, and has only experienced a single episode of vomiting, it’s likely due to a stomach problem, or nausea from motion sickness.
More likely than not, your dog will recover on its own. However, we recommend the following steps to help give them a better time:
- Stop food intake for at least 6 hours, probably longer (some sources suggest up to 24 hours). A common mistake dog owners make is assuming their dogs are hungry because they’ve just vomited. Actually, their digestive tract just needs rest.
- During this “fasting period,” monitor your dog for additional vomiting, or other abnormal symptoms. You may continue to offer them water.
- If no further vomiting happens, feed them a smaller portion of something “light.” Bland chicken and rice is often given to dogs with diarrhea, but is a good option here as well.
- You might choose to continue feeding chicken and rice for another day or two.
- If your dog’s condition continues to improve, you can slowly mix in their regular food back in with the chicken and rice.
- If, during the process, your dog continues to vomit, see below.
Serious - Yellow/Green “Continuous” Vomit, Multiple Episodes
So your dog was doing fine, but then suddenly he was hit with multiple episodes of vomit (many times in a 24 hour period)
Moreover, the vomiting episodes might be trending in the wrong direction. At first, it looked relatively normal, but the color of the vomit started to get darker–closer to a brown color.
Multiple episodes may indicate something more serious than a simple stomach problem. More serious attention, compared to the mild case presented above, may be necessary.
We have some suggestions here for home remedies and steps to help with your dog’s recovery:
- Stop food intake for at least 12 hours, probably longer. Like before, some sources suggest 24 hours.
- For their next meal, switch their food over to something “light” immediately, and feed a smaller portion than their usual meal. We recommended bland chicken and rice in the mild case, and we’ll do the same here too.
- Make sure they have continuous access to water. Vomiting can cause rapid dehydration.
- If you think your dog’s vomiting is due to nausea, this home remedy can help: Mix chamomile, marshmallow root, and dandelion tinctures. Dissolve in water. Give 3 drops in mouth for every 5lbs of bodyweight.
- If your dog has had digestive issues in the past, and vomiting contains undigested food, try one of the following:
- Use a special digestive care dog food. Note: this probably requires a vet prescription. Half of Yuna’s meals are Hill’s Prescription i/D Low Fat kibble, which has soothed her pancreatitis symptoms considerably.
- Add ground dandelion to food; this can also stimulate digestion by helping the gallbladder secrete bile.
Finally, if the home remedies don’t seem to work, seek a vet.
Critical - Dark Brown/Black Vomit, Single Or Multiple Episodes
If your dog expels dark brown or black vomit, we recommend you forego trying to treat your dog at home yourself.
Don’t wait. This could be indicative of a serious situation, worthy of an emergency visit.
How To Make The Vet Visit Productive
Should you decide to pay your vet a visit, there’s some prep work to make that visit as productive as possible.
Here’s a useful checklist of questions you should be prepared to answer to help give your vet better context. Don’t worry–we covered pretty much all of this throughout the article already!
- When did vomiting first occur?
- How frequent have the vomiting episodes been?
- What color is the vomit? (having a picture helps)
- What did the vomit contain? Food pieces? Blood? (having a picture helps)
- Have you noticed any other symptoms? Importantly, diarrhea? (bringing a stool sample helps)
- What food is your dog currently on? Have you changed their diet recently?
- What medication(s) is your dog currently on? Since when did they begin those medications?
- Anything toxic they may have ingested recently?
- Any noticeable changes in behavior recently?
- Any sudden changes to your dog’s environment recently?
- Where has your dog been recently? Any outdoor hikes where they may have picked up parasites, or ingested any toxins? Could they have been exposed to kennel cough or another transmissible disease (i.e. at dog parks, boarding kennels)?
Depending on context, your vet may take a number of next steps, including blood tests, X-rays, ultrasound, or surgery to remove any obstructions.
To recap, let’s succinctly summarize what to do if your dog is vomiting or regurgitating.
First, observe, observe, observe. Note down everything about your dog’s vomit, from its content to their behaviors before and after each episode.
Depending on your observations, classify the severity of your dog’s vomiting, and evaluate whether they need immediate medical attention.
If mild enough, take the appropriate actions: allow their digestive system time to rest, switch over to a lighter food, and try out some home remedies.
If symptoms worsen, or the vomiting is serious, seek a vet’s help immediately.
Hopefully this guide cleared up a bit of the basics on whether you should be concerned about your dog’s vomiting.
We keep these articles updated with new information we learn from research and experience. Let us know if we’re missing something!