Why is my dog throwing up or vomiting?
Medically reviewed by Dr. Bradley J. Waffa, MSPH, DVM
We’ve all been there… your dog is vomiting and you’re wondering, should I go to the vet? But why do dogs throw up in the first place? And what will a veterinarian do to assess the situation? And most importantly, when is it okay to wait it out, and when do you need to head to an urgent care vet clinic? We’ve got answers! The following content was originally produced as a podcast and has been transcribed below.
Why is My Dog Throwing Up?
CJ Casselli: Alright, Dr. Waffa, I come home, I walk into my living room and my dog throws up. You know people have this experience all the time, so why is my dog vomiting?
Dr. Brad Waffa: Yeah, they do have this experience and it’s usually when they come home from work or on a weekend or during a holiday or some horribly inopportune time; I swear that always seems to be the way that these things play out, but it’s a great question. Of course, there’s no way to answer for every specific case why your particular pet is vomiting. If I could answer that on a podcast, we’d never have to actually see any pets in the clinic. And unfortunately, we usually do, but I can tell you a little bit about how we typically think of vomiting.
Vomiting vs. Regurgitation
Dr. Brad Waffa: First of all, in veterinary medicine, we make a strong distinction between vomiting and regurgitation, and this is important because vomiting and regurgitation come from different places and they mean different things. So let’s get gross for a second…
When we talk about vomiting, you’ve probably seen a pet vomit before. And if you have, you’ll never forget the sound… we need an alarm clock with that sound. I think nothing gets you out of bed really faster than when a dog or a cat starts making that sound of vomiting. It’s a central response. It starts in the brain and the brain tells the stomach, hey, something doesn’t belong here, let’s throw up. That’s vomit.
If you’ve ever held a baby, you’ve probably experienced regurgitation. Regurgitation, by contrast, is a passive process. So regurgitation often comes without warning. There’s no sound associated with it. There’s often no nausea associated with it. It just “urps.” You know, dogs and cats just “urp” and often a little bit of fluid comes up.
Sometimes they don’t even throw up on the floor. It just comes up into their mouth and they swallow it, or it can go into their airway. But this is important because vomiting comes from the stomach; it’s a central response. Regurgitation comes typically directly from the stomach or the esophagus, and so it points to different problems. So that’s one of the ways that we think about vomiting.
Gastrointestinal (GI) Causes vs. Extra Gastrointestinal (GI) Causes
Dr. Brad Waffa: With true vomiting though, when we know that it’s vomiting, we think of GI causes versus extra GI causes. These are the two big buckets that your veterinarian is going to try to understand with GI causes of vomiting.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. There’s a problem in the GI tract. It could be that your pet ate something that didn’t agree with them. It could be that there’s inflammation in the GI tract like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). It could be that they swallowed something like a tennis ball that doesn’t belong there. In an older pet, it could be something like a tumor; there could be GI ulceration. The point is with GI causes of vomiting, the problem is in the GI tract.
With extra GI causes of vomiting, the other bucket, think of things that have nothing to do with the GI tract. If you’ve ever had a hangover, you’ve probably experienced extra GI vomiting, extra GI nausea; vomiting that comes from things outside the GI tract like electrolyte disturbances or liver problems or kidney problems, or endocrine problems.
The point is they have nothing to do with the GI tract, but they cause what appears to be a GI problem. So these are the two big buckets that we try to understand when you bring your pet to the veterinarian to try to understand vomiting. And they’re going to do diagnostics to try to characterize and understand where it’s coming from…
How a Veterinarian Will Assess Vomiting
Dr. Brad Waffa: So bloodwork is typically how we understand extra GI causes of vomiting. It helps us to look at what the liver is up to, what the kidneys are doing; helps us to understand systemically how your pet is doing.
We also use imaging to understand GI causes of vomiting. So that’s what x-rays or ultrasound are for usually; we want to cast a really wide net and truly understand what’s going on with your pet.
We will often do both of those at the same time. As I like to say, you can have diarrhea and a headache. You can have a gi and an extra GI cause of vomiting at the same time.
When Should You Go to a Vet Clinic?
CJ Casselli: And the question we always get, and I often have to, is when do I actually need to call in or come into the clinic? We’ve all had a human experience where I’ve thrown up and maybe I’m fine with that, you know, unless it happens again, then I start to get worried. But can I apply that same line of thinking to my dog?
Dr. Brad Waffa: Yeah, it’s a good question, and I think you kind of can. This is where I really do lean pretty heavily on my pet owners to make those determinations.
Now, I would tell you vomiting is never normal. We hear this all the time, especially from cat owners: “Well, my cat’s only vomited five times this month. That’s normal for him.” It might be usual for him, but it’s not normal. Vomiting is never normal. Even one time, it points to a problem.
Now the question is really how serious of a problem is it? And that’s where you have to correlate what you’re seeing with kind of your knowledge of your pet, what is normal for them, how old they are, how sick they are. If you come home and your pet’s been running around after he guzzled some water or just ate some food and he throws up one time and he’s wagging his tail and acting normal, do I race that pet to the vet or recommend that? Not necessarily.
But if I come home from work and my 14-year-old dog who’s been hanging out all day looks like he’s feeling punky, and I find multiple piles of vomit throughout the house, or he’s exhibiting other signs or he seems weak or lethargic; that’s a pet I’m not going to waste any time getting to the vet.
So there’s not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all answer to that question. But I would say that typically vomiting is never normal. And if you’re seeing it and it doesn’t seem right, trust your instincts here.