Whether we’re motivated by habit, necessity, or convenience, humans self-medicate all the time. We all have our own traditional or home remedies for everything from the common cold to digestive issues. Because there are so many over-the-counter medications readily available, we come to rely and depend on simple, time-tested solutions. Dogs, on the other hand, have a very different body chemistry. Their ability to digest and process human foods is different than ours; so too is their tolerance to medications. Vets universally agree that we should not give human medicines to dogs; are there any exceptions?
If our stomach is upset, we reach for the pink stuff, Pepto-Bismol, an extremely common and simple remedy for acid reflux, diarrhea, and vomiting. Even when we know we shouldn’t, we share many of our favorite things with our dogs. We let them sleep in our beds and give them table scraps at dinner. When we see our dogs suffering from a tummy ache, evidenced by vomiting or loose stool, naturally, our minds turn to easy solutions from the medicine cabinet. Is Pepto-Bismol safe for dogs? Let’s find out.
Pepto-Bismol, is, of course, a trademarked brand-name medication. Like many other over-the-counter products — among them ChapStick, Band-Aids, and Q-Tips — Pepto achieved such a wide reputation that its name has passed into the common parlance. We inherently trust the name, though we may be unfamiliar with its ingredients. Know then, that Pepto-Bismol’s active ingredient is the same one found in kaopectate, a chemical compound called bismuth subsalicylate.
Pink bismuth, as it is also known, has several functions. It is has antacid and antibacterial properties. It also contains salicylic acid, which is found in aspirin, and can act as an anti-inflammatory. Further, it suppresses a hormone that causes diarrhea. These properties are all useful for coating, soothing, and relieving a digestive tract that is irritated by diarrhea or vomiting. If it is used at all in dogs, it should be used sparingly and under the supervision of or in consultation with your dog’s veterinarian.
If your dog has just started experiencing diarrhea or vomiting, naturally you want to help him regain regularity as soon as possible. You instinctively move to the medicine cabinet and reach for the pink stuff. Now for the important questions you’re all asking:
You’ll want to determine first whether a dog’s digestive upset is an isolated incident or part of a more systematic and serious problem. If your dog has just taken her first car ride in a while or eaten something outside of her typical diet, vomiting and diarrhea are perfectly natural bodily responses, and an over-the-counter upset stomach medication might help. If there is blood present in the feces, if the problem has persisted for more than a couple of days, or if your dog is on any prescription medication — especially a steroid such as prednisone — consult with your veterinarian first.
As for the appropriate dosage, that is also context dependent. There are several different formulations of over-the-counter Pepto-Bismol. A children’s version is different than the standard formula, which is different than the one labeled “maximum-strength.” Further, the appropriate dosage for a Pekingese is going to be far smaller than for a Great Dane; it entirely depends on the size, weight, and general health of dog in question. Since Pepto also contains an aspirin derivative, which can be toxic to both dogs and cats, dosage and format are matters best left to a veterinarian. Technically, yes, a dog can be given Pepto-Bismol, but not without serious consideration and professional advice.
This is the fundamental risk with administering human medications to our pets. As Dogster’s resident veterinarian Dr. Barchas recently wrote, the aspirin-derivative content, small though it may be, in Pepto and similar medications can actually cause stomach upset if a dog takes it for too long, or takes too high a dose. It is best to avoid using upset-stomach medicines meant for humans on our dogs altogether.
That said, side effects of bismuth subsalicylate on dogs are similar to those in humans, including constipation and darkened feces. Beyond these, Pepto-Bismol side effects can be worse if your dog:
Upset stomach, including diarrhea or vomiting in dogs, can frequently be resolved by a simple and temporary dietary change. For dogs who are vomiting or passing loose, watery feces, veterinarians often recommend substituting white rice and boiled chicken for their usual wet or dry food. This combination of foods is easy for dogs to digest and to evacuate. Replacing their kibble or moist food for no more than a few meals or a couple of days can help restore regularity to their digestive systems.
While it’s true that many human foods are not salutary to a dog’s digestion, it is mainly due to the fact that our favorite foods tend to be oversaturated with spices, seasonings, and artificial flavorings. It is these additives, rather than the inherent qualities of the foods themselves, that makes them difficult for dogs to process. Boiled and prepared simply, rice and boneless chicken have a texture and consistency that can help set a dog’s digestive system back on track without any of the risks of human medications.
If your dog experiences digestive issues for longer than two days, you should consult a veterinarian. Do not attempt to ration or portion out human medications to your dogs. Even “safe,” seemingly innocuous over-the-counter remedies can wreak havoc on a dog’s body. Extended bouts with diarrhea or vomiting can cause dogs to become dehydrated, which can have damaging effects far beyond simple stomach upset. Our impulse as dog owners is to react to symptoms, where veterinarians are trained to determine, diagnose, and treat the underlying cause of a dog’s discomfort.
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.