Pet Education

Vomiting and Diarrhea…Is it an Emergency

Pet Ed: Vomiting and Diarrhea

Vomiting and diarrhea are two of the most common reasons pets come into the emergency room.

By Roubina Honarchian, DMV
Emergency + Critical Care

Vomiting and diarrhea in cats and dogs can be caused by quite a range of different causes. Causes with different treatment recommendations and potential outcomes.

Common Causes

Gastroenteritis: The most common cause of vomiting and diarrhea is gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis literally means inflammation of the stomach and intestines.

Gastroenteritis is typically secondary to dietary indiscretion. This means that most pet’s GI tract is reacting to a new treat, change of dog food or some type of “treat” that the dog or cat may have helped themselves to on a walk or by getting into the trash.

Gastroenteritis is typically self – limiting which means signs will resolve without much medical intervention within 12-24 hours. Often time a bland diet is recommended to help limit continued inflammation of the GI tract and the pet is fed small frequent meals of steamed rice or boiled chicken breast. No skin, bones, oil and seasoning is key to keep a diet bland.

Gastroenteritis is usually a presumptive diagnosis. Radiographs and lab work findings are often generally unremarkable.

Obstruction: Another cause for vomiting and diarrhea that is more emergent is a gastrointestinal foreign body obstruction. This means that a dog has ingested some type of foreign material (that is typically not food) that has tried to pass through the GI tract and has become lodged or stuck somewhere with the intestines.

More commonly GI foreign body obstructions are seen in puppies or younger dogs that chew up parts of a toy, eat a sock or a rock (the list can go on). Cats and kittens can be guilty as well however, they more often like to eat strings, hair ties and ribbons. A GI obstruction is most commonly suspected based on radiographic or ultrasound findings. It is important to remember that foreign material does not always show up clearly on radiographs or ultrasound images and imaging (both ultrasound and radiographs), although a very important tool, are not always 100% definitive.

If a GI obstruction is suspected an exploratory abdominal surgery is recommended for potential foreign body removal. If foreign material remains lodged within the intestine for enough time risk and complications increase as the intestines can perforate and the pet can become septic. This complication can be life threatening so it is important to diagnose a foreign body in a timely manner.

Infectious agents: Infectious agents of the GI tract can also absolutely cause vomiting and diarrhea. A viral infection, more specifically Parvo Virus can often be the culprit responsible for vomiting and diarrhea in puppies and dogs that are not fully vaccinated. Other infectious agents can be parasites, again more commonly diagnosed in young pets. A parvo test as well as fecal sample testing is often times recommended for young pets that are displaying gastrointestinal symptoms. Intestinal parasites are often easily treated with a dewormer medications however a positive test for Parvo Virus can require days of hospitalization for close monitoring and treatment.

Systematic diseases: Causes for vomiting and diarrhea are not limited to disease processes with the GI tract only. Certainly systemic diseases including pancreatitis, liver disease and kidney disease among many other disease processes anywhere else in the body can cause GI symptoms secondarily. Chronic or long term vomiting and diarrhea in pets have a slightly different list of likely diagnoses.

Diagnostic Steps

No matter what a pet’s age or history the first diagnostic steps your veterinarian will likely recommend, if having vomiting and diarrhea, will be imaging (radiographs or an ultrasound) and evaluation of a blood panel. Other more specific testing may be recommended based on your pet’s age and history.

And to bring it all the way around…is vomiting and diarrhea an emergency?

Well…it certainly can be, so having your pet evaluated by a veterinarian and pursing initial diagnostics in a timely manner is always a good place to start.


Animal Specialty Group

DVM, Emergency + Critical Care

Dr. Roubina Honarchian’s interest in Emergency and Critical Care springs from her deep-seeded concern for love, justice, and animal neglect. Her specific veterinary areas of interest are extensions of those causes: pathology, shelter medicine, and internal medicine are among the veterinary practices she cares about most.