One of the most common questions I receive is about what to feed a dog with diarrhea or other stomach issues, like vomiting and gas. We’ve all been there, and we know how unpleasant it is. The good news is that we can help our canine companions feel better faster. First, we need to identify the cause of the distress and determine whether it’s a serious condition requiring veterinary attention or an acute situation that can be treated with some at-home TLC.
If symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting persist for more than 24 hours, or are accompanied by other worrisome signs such as lethargy or lack of appetite, I err on the side of caution and advise taking a trip to the vet. However, an acute flare-up resulting from a dietary indiscretion or stress colitis, for example, can typically be addressed at home and recovery helped along with proper nutritional management.
In these acute cases, I like to draw from the ancient wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) food therapy, which optimizes the individual’s qi (life force) by balancing the internal energies of yin (cold) and yang (heat). According to TCM, all foods have properties that either warm the body, cool the body or are neutral. When the body’s yin and yang are out of balance, disease results.
“Most acute gastrointestinal problems relate to excess yang, or heat, so we want to treat them with cooling yin foods,” says Marc Smith, D.V.M., a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) practitioner and owner of Natchez Trace Veterinary Services in Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, and co-owner of PET | TAO Holistic Pet Products.
Here are some of Dr. Smith’s advice on what to feed a sick dog. His favorite TCVM food remedies seek to address your dog’s acute upset stomach and get his qi back in balance as quickly as possible:
Dr. Smith advises withholding food — but not water — for 12 to 24 hours, depending upon the severity of the situation. “Digestion takes energy, which can further deplete an already compromised organ of its qi,” he says. Allowing the GI tract to rest prepares it to better receive the nutrients that are then introduced. Be sure to provide your dog with water or ice chips to avoid dehydration.
Many people feed chicken when their dog has an upset stomach, but Dr. Smith warns that chicken is actually a “hot” protein that can further deplete yin energy. He recommends introducing lean cooling proteins, such as rabbit, turkey, white fish, eggs, low-fat cottage cheese, pork or organic tofu. Dr. Smith also advises avoiding yang proteins such as beef, salmon, venison, lamb and goat until the dog’s symptoms fully subside.
White rice is perhaps the most “prescribed” food by veterinarians for dogs with acute gastrointestinal distress, but white rice is actually warming. While brown rice is cooling, some dogs experience difficulty digesting it, so Dr. Smith recommends feeding millet instead. “Millet is a cooling food that is also high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and manganese, making it an excellent choice in times of acute GI distress,” he says.
White potatoes are a cooling food that are also bland and easy to digest, making them perfect for helping to settle upset stomachs and provide energy without taxing an already stressed GI system. Dr. Smith advises boiling, steaming or baking the potatoes and mashing the flesh. Remove the hard-to-digest skin prior to serving.
“Bananas are both a cooling and moisturizing food, which helps to restore yin energy as well as tonify a dehydrated digestive system,” Dr. Smith says. Bananas also contain pectin, a soluble fiber that helps bind water in the colon and coat the GI tract. An added bonus: They’re rich in potassium, an important electrolyte that can become depleted during bouts of diarrhea or vomiting. Dr. Smith recommends giving about 1 teaspoon of mashed banana per 10 pounds of body weight.
Like bananas, apples are an excellent source of pectin to alleviate loose stool and soothe the intestines. Opt for applesauce, which is far easier to digest than raw apples, and be sure to use only plain, unsweetened products. As with banana, give about 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight.
Peppermint is a cooling herb that can soothe upset stomachs and ease indigestion. It helps alleviate spasms and calm the muscles of the intestinal tract, enabling trapped gas to pass. Peppermint may also contain antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. It is strong, so a little goes a long way. Dr. Smith recommends giving peppermint in the form of fresh chopped leaves. Feed about 1/4 teaspoon to a small dog, ½ teaspoon to a medium dog and 1 teaspoon to a large dog. Never give your dog human peppermint products, which can contain toxic ingredients like xylitol. Avoid peppermint if your dog has gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), as it can worsen symptoms.
Dr. Smith notes that TCM therapy for an acute upset stomach differs from a chronic gastrointestinal condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). “In cases of a chronic illness or when symptoms persist for more than a couple of days, veterinary evaluation is essential to determine the proper treatment protocol,” he says.
But if your dog is down in the dumps from an acute case of stomach upset, applying the ancient wisdom of TCM food therapy can help balance his qi — and get him back on his feet — faster.
Tell us: What do you feed your dog when he has diarrhea or other stomach issues? What foods have worked for you?
Thumbnail: Photography ©Lindsay_Helms| Getty Images.
Diana Laverdure-Dunetz, MS, is a canine nutritionist and co-author, with W. Jean Dodds, D.V.M., of two books, including Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health. Their online course, Complete Canine Nutrition, can be found at myhealthydog.dog.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!
Read more about dog health care on Dogster.com: